The Achievement Gap: New Study Reveals Where the U.S. Stands

Are students in the United States catching up to kids in other industrialized countries?

education achievement gap study
The international student achievement gap is the focus of a new Harvard study. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The United States is smack in the middle of the international achievement gap. According to a new study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 49 countries in student test-score gains over a 14-year period.

The report, released by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), shows the United States has a long way to go in catching up with other industrialized countries. Three countries—Latvia, Chile, and Brazil—are making gains at three times the rate of U.S. students.

The authors—Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University, Paul E. Peterson of Harvard, and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich—examined fourth- and eighth-grade test-score gains in math, reading, and science from 1995-2009 in 49 countries.

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Their study also shows that seven other countries—Portugal, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania—and the special administrative region of Hong Kong are also excelling at a faster pace, with gains two times that of the United States.

“Student performance in high school is very strongly related to a country’s rate of economic growth,” Peterson, a Harvard professor and PEPG director, told TakePart. “The long-term benefits of substantial improvement can yield trillions of dollars in national income over the course of several decades after the students enter the labor force.”

Peterson said that a country places “itself at grave economic and social risk if it tolerates a low-quality educational system over the long run.”

Several countries excel over the United States in math and science while also being able to increase their high school graduation and college enrollment rates, often at a much higher rate than the United States. The authors said in the study that the United States’ progress “is middling, not stellar.”

Performance is better in countries that offer students a wider option of schools, Peterson said. Students also fare better in countries where “some kind of teacher performance pay arrangement is in place,” he said.

Any progress by the United States is not “sufficiently rapid” enough to allow for it to become equal to the leading countries in the industrialized world.

The authors also examined rates of improvement among states, with Maryland achieving the steepest growth. Florida, Delaware, and Massachusetts followed. Louisiana, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Virginia were also strongly improving.

Meanwhile, Iowa had the slowest improvement rate.

The study showed that the South’s strong results “may be related to energetic political efforts to enhance school quality in that region,” especially in the 1990s. In contrast, Midwestern states began school reform only recently.

Other findings include:

  • Increased spending on education and test score gains did not have any direct correlation.
  • The states with the largest gains are improving at a rate two to three times of those states with the smallest gains.
  • States in which students improved the most overall also had the largest percent reduction in students with very low achievement.

In the study, Hanushek states that education goal-setting in the United States “has often been utopian rather than realistic.”

For example, in 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors set a goal for all American students to graduate high school. Twenty years later, only 75 percent of ninth graders received their high school diploma in four years.

“A country ignores the quality of its schools at its economic peril,” the study says.

In conclusion, the three authors stress that policymakers should stop creating unattainable goals. Instead, they suggest that lower-ranking states model themselves after the most-improving states in order to narrow the achievement gap. If that occurred, they say the United States could become more in range with the leading countries within 15 to 20 years.

Do you agree with the author's conclusion? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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