Harvard Study Measures Wisconsin Student Performance in a Global Context

What do to 8th grade students in Wisconsin have in common with 8th grade students in Russia and Lithuania? They’re just as likely to post advanced scores in math testing as their Eurasian counterparts.

A new study released by Harvard University measured how America’s students stack up across the world in advanced knowledge of math and other school subjects. Not surprisingly, the results didn’t weren’t exactly encouraging for us Yankees. The United States ranked 31st out of 57 participating countries when it came to the percentage of students testing at an advanced level or better in 8th grade math. In all, 16 of those countries had at least twice as many advanced students than America, according to recent test data.

The report, authored by education policy stalwarts Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessman, dug even deeper to America’s lag. The trio produced specific results for readers to compare individual states against the rest of the world. Wisconsin, despite ranking 11th in the country, fails to match up favorably against other developed countries.

Thirty countries that participated in the study had higher rates of advanced students than the Badger State. Six point seven percent of all 8th grade students in Wisconsin tested above this threshold, giving the state similar results to countries such as Russia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Amongst white students, this percentage jumped to 7.6 percent – but lagged behind the national average, which was eight percent.

Regionally, Wisconsin placed only behind Minnesota in the Midwest. However, the Gopher State, which had 10.8% of its students test at advanced or higher, outpaced its neighbor to the east by over 60 percentmore students. Most of the rest of the Midwestern states ranked in the 24-37 range nationally. These results paired them with countries such as Estonia, Iceland, Slovakia, and Hungary.

However, not all the results in this study were discouraging for Wisconsin. Reading scores held a slight ray of hope for the state. Three point four percent of students were labeled as “advanced” or better when held up to worldwide standards. Though this seems like a small number, it exceeds the national average and places the state 11th overall in the U.S.. This figure, although modest, was still good enough to rank in the top ten amongst all countries – comparable to highly regarded nations such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden.

Wisconsin’s results among eighth grade science students were even more impressive. The state place second nationally as 4.7% of students tested at an advanced level – approximately 50 percent higher than the American average. These results would have made the Badger State a top ten country – ranking ahead of notables like Taiwan, Liechtenstein, Germany, and the Netherlands in the worldwide rankings.

The take away from this study is that the best and brightest students across the country may not be as advanced as we thought they were. This report points out that considerably more progress has been made in advancing the lowest performing students than those who have traditionally accomplished the most. Some have pointed to the restrictions of No Child Left Behind leaving advanced students with fewer opportunities. Others suggest that it is merely a symptom of this country’s struggling public schools.

One thing is clear – America’s advanced students are getting washed out by their international competition. This study suggests that the United States will be headed into the future with a staunch handicap when it comes to producing an intelligent new generation. If this trend continues, American leaders in a new world will become a global scarcity sooner than we realize.

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst