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How good are Americans at math? Studies are conflicting -- some claim that Americans are terrible compared to other countries, while others report that the US is about average with everyone else. What's the real story?

Are American students that bad at math?

A recent article, American students might be better at math than you think argues in favor of American students. While there are plenty of reports that claim Americans aren't as good as other countries. It is possible they overstate just how bad they are. For example, the article references New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, who believes that American eighth-graders’ math skills are humiliatingly bad, citing examples of problems that students in Ghana, Iran, Indonesia, Armenia, Turkey, and Palestine can solve and American eighth-graders can’t.

Kristof does have a point, which is essentially that American students tend to be bad at applying the math they've learned in the real world. While math teachers ought to be concerned about the methods they're using to teach math, that doesn't mean American kids are worse than those other countries. What that article believes Kristof is doing is "cherry-picking problems from a test on which American students, on average, do pretty well in comparison." 

American students aren’t as bad at math as you think.

Essentially, Kristof uses the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey, a standardized test of eighth-graders, but only uses the questions that students did worse on than any other. As a whole, the Americans didn't do that bad on the entire test -- in fact, for the majority of the test, they did better than average. Overall, American students scored slightly above average, on par with Finland’s test-takers.

While math teachers ought to be concerned about the methods they're using to teach math, that doesn't mean American kids are worse than those other countries.

Our math techniques could be the problem

This is a notably different method from American schools, showing that our own less-creative teaching methods may be why American students don't always score as high on tests as other countries. But, it doesn't mean they are bad at math -- they have just been tought fewer methods of applying it.

Compared to those around the world, American students are lacking in their math skills, but overall they are not as terrible as some may say and do about average compared to other countries. The questions students were asked were not the best examples, and throughout the world, there are different programs where students are taught different things.

Key Takeaways:

1
American students aren’t good at math compared with students around the world.
2
Kristof argues that American eighth-graders’ math skills are humiliatingly bad, citing examples of problems that students in Ghana, Iran, Indonesia.
3
Kristof’s basic point is correct: American students really are bad at math, particularly at applying what they’ve learned in the real world.

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