Low math and science scores put drag on California economy

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

Students compete in the 2013 VEX Robotics High School World Championship in Anaheim, CA. (Photo Credit: Steve Rainwater/Flickr)

It’s that time of year again. No, not the time of holiday cheer and hot cocoa, but the time when the international testing results come pouring in and determine where countries rank in terms of proficiency in the key subjects. And, as was the case the last time the Program for International Student Assessment administered the tests in 2009, the United States has a math and science problem.

This isn’t exactly news to us here at the California Economic Summit – we’ve been touting the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and its link to our economy, and the latest rankings of the U.S., coupled with those of California, leave much to be desired.

The United States scores below average in math of the 65 countries tested, ranking behind 29 other countries. The problem was similar for science, as students in 22 other countries performed better than Americans.

But education experts aren’t exactly shocked by the United States’ continued struggles compared to the rest of the world. “The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance — the effects of poverty on students,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement.

It would be nice if California could save face by saying that it ranks near the top for education in the US, but that’d be a lie. A 2011 measurement from the Science and Engineering Readiness Index ranked California at 34th in math and science education. These findings go hand-in-hand with those in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study from 2012, where Californian low competence in math is highlighted by the fact that only 5 percent of California 8th graders were at an advanced level of math. This is in comparison to the 48 percent of Singapore students and 45 percent of South Korea students that are considered advanced.

Why this matters for California’s economy moving forward in this globalized economy that operates today should be clear. Consider this: PISA scores don’t just measure student aptitude; one study out of Stanford says that rising PISA scores mean economic growth. This is especially bad news for the United States, where the economic recovery – particularly in California – is fragmented at best. This is why the California Economic Summit puts so much stock in the value of STEM education and training. If we as a state are unable to get our students up to snuff in these areas, we are making the conscious decision to allow other countries and education systems to pass us by. 


Matthew Grant Anson

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