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

Sara J Dufort

According to a new report released by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, the United States is still trailing behind other countries when it comes to test scores in the subjects of math, reading and science.

The U.S. was ranked 25th out of 49 countries in student test score gains over a 14-year period.

Some countries like Latvia, Chile, and Brazil are even making gains three times faster than the U.S. Researchers estimate that these gains made are the equivalent to about two years of learning.

The study conducted by researchers Eric A.Hanuskek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann examined fourth and eighth grade test score gains for a 14-year period between 1995 and 2009 in a total of 49 different countries. The study also pitted U.S. states against other states to determine which were making more significant gains.

This new report is similar to others that show foreign students outpacing their American counterparts.

A 2009 study found that U.S. students ranked 25th of 35 countries in math and science, clearly behind other industrialized nations. While this new study does not state that the U.S. is the worst, researchers are calling the progress “middling”.

The U.S. is in the middle of the bell-curve, and as a powerful nation this should not be occurring. The study makes it clear that any progress that the U.S. is currently making is not rapid enough to keep up with other leading industrialized nations.

Not only is progress like this hurting the nation’s youth, but it is also a threat to the economic progress.

The study states, “Because rates of economic growth have a huge impact on the future well-being of the nation, there is a simple message: A country ignores the quality of its schools at its economic peril.”

In addition, Peterson saId, “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.”

In addition to looking at the U.S. versus other countries, the study also examined the trends within the U.S. as well.

Maryland has made the strongest improvement, with Florida, Delaware and Massachusetts following closely behind.

Iowa, however, was improving at the slowest rate. The study found that if all states had achieved similar academic gains as the four leading states, that the United States would have been making progress at the same rate of Germany and the United Kingdom. This would have brought Americans closer to the top performing nations.

The study did not only examine how states were performing against each other. The author also sought to discover how certain policies on education were working.

While many education advocates believe that increased per-pupil spending would yield higher test results, the study found that there was actually little correlation to prove this.

While Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey all had gains in test scores after increased spending, other states like New York and West Virginia did not, even after they increased their expenditures.

An analysis by 24/7 Wall St. last year showed similar results. In 2009, the U.S. spent an average of $10,000 per student, ranging from $6,356 per student in Utah to $18,126 in New York. While Utah spent much less than New York, they still had a higher graduation rate.

Author Eric Hanushek has a solution for improving the United State’s performance. Hanushek believes that U.S. goal-setting when it comes to education has always been “utopian, rather than realistic.”

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush set a goal that all high school students would graduate. Twenty years later, and only 75 percent of ninth graders graduated in four years.

Hanushek suggests that instead of making unrealistic goals, lawmakers should make attainable ones. He suggests that lower-ranked states model their education reform after states making the most significant gains.

With this report shining a new light on our education system, lawmakers may push to make these dreams a reality.