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Here’s How Americans Stack Up Against Students in Other Countries

When it comes to math skills, Alabama performs like Armenia, Mississippi comes close to Dubai, Washington, D.C., performs like Ukraine, and Massachusetts is just one rung below Japan, according to a study released by the U.S. government.

In science, Mississippi and Alabama look a lot like Kazakhstan, D.C. is close to Bahrain, and Massachusetts edges out Taiwan.

The study is the first to show where U.S. states would rank on the international exam Trends in International Math and Science Study, or TIMSS. Students in most U.S. states don’t take TIMSS, so U.S. statisticians approximated results using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest U.S. comprehensive standardized test.

The results are mixed. Thirty-six U.S. states scored higher than the international math average of 500, out of a possible 1,000 points. On average, Americans would have scored 509 on math, according to the study. In science, 47 states would have performed higher than the average of 500. Three performed lower, and two were tied. Americans would have averaged a 525 on science. Massachusetts and Vermont topped the U.S. results in both subjects.

While the average U.S. scores look respectable, the result masks a deficit in U.S. performance. Students in even the highest-scoring states don’t match the top-performing countries.

“The bad news it that students in even our highest-performing states — Massachusetts and Vermont — cannot compete in math with students from the highest performing education systems, such as Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. He added: “The shortage of U.S. students testing at advanced levels underscores the importance of setting high standards, benchmarked to international performance — instead of dummying down expectations for student performance, as many states did during the last decade.”

The results come as many in the U.S. wonder just how bad American education is. So-called education reformers often use alarmist rhetoric along with international comparisons to make the case for overhauling schools. Their opponents tend to parse the data differently.

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