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U.S. Schools May Not Have Quite the ‘Math Problem’ We Think They Do

The latest international test results show American students falling short in math — but that’s not strictly a problem for schools.

The results from the world’s biggest comparative education study are in: Students in the United States are still falling behind in math.

Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-old kids from 72 countries (or independent economies) in reading, math, and science. While the U.S. continues to score in the average for reading and science, our students fall below par in math, with the disparity having widened in the most recent 2015 assessment.

This news has prompted the usual panic about the U.S. having a “math problem.” But this generic handwringing is not the most fair or helpful way to interpret the test results, argues Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “I don’t think anyone who conceived of the original international tests thought this would, or should, become such a horse race,” he says.

For one thing, Carnoy notes, U.S. student performance varies by state; Massachusetts beat the international average in every subject last year. Between countries, performance varies by socioeconomic class — a point that has increasedpast disparities between the U.S. and other test-takers.

Analyzing the 2012 PISA results, Carnoy, along with researchers Emma García and Tatiana Khavenson, found that the U.S. measured up much better internationally when students’ academic resources — such as the number of books they have at home, and their mothers’ education levels — were taken into account. Their results suggest that our “math problem” is at least, in part, a resource problem, where the U.S. performs worse than other countries because it serves a more socioeconomically eclectic demographic.

The U.S. PISA rankings, then, may not reflect some broad crisis in quality for math education itself. Instead, the drop may have as much to do with higher numbers of U.S. public school students coming from low-income families with relatively limited academic resources. Low-income students made up the majority in American public schools for the first time in history in 2013, according to a report from the Southern Education Foundation last year.

That trend matches a national widening wealth gap, with more Americans charting as low- and high-income rather than middle class. But for academic inequalities, the 2015 PISA actually brings some good news: For science, at least, the U.S. fared better than any other country in reducing the effect of socioeconomic status on scores. Lower-income American students, it seems, are doing better on the science test. (Achievement gap data was not reported for math and reading.)

So improving U.S. education may require increasing attention to those students who need more resources to learn — rather than an internationally motivated overhaul of our math lessons.