American Kids Aren't Getting Dumber; They Were Just Never That Smart

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Good news! The US is not actually falling from the world's top spot for academic achievement. The bad news, though, is that America was never really number one to begin with. Good's education editor Liz Dwyer points to a new report clarifying that recent "doom-and-gloom" notions of America falling from grace as the smartest country on Earth are simply not true. However, even though America was never the smartest nation, there's a glimmer of optimism as our test scores rise.

The latest report, by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, points out that even in the first International Math Study in 1964, Americans landed in 11th place. Americans have never scored highest in the variety of international tests taken over the years since that first study, so "it's a myth that we've fallen from our glory days," writes Dwyer.

So why was everyone up in arms just a few months ago when students in Shaghai beat out everyone else in the last Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam? In case you don't remember, the media was in a frenzy last December, searching for reasons why Chinese students had possibly outperformed the US. Perhaps American students should spend more time studying exam subjects and less time playing sports, studying music, and engaging in other activities. Or maybe it's our teachers who, compared to those in China, are underpaid and under trained. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press at the time that, "the results are an absolutely wake-up call for America. We have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education."

Out of 34 countries, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th (below average) in math on the 2009 exam. This sounds less than stellar, but Loveless's new report, contradicts the panic these scores inspired, saying that "the US performance on PISA has been flat to slightly upward since the test's inception and it has improved on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests, since 1995."

It's not necessarily a bad thing that these scores were misinterpreted by the press. The Operation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the authors of the exam, presented the participating countries with a comprehensive list of lessons for each to learn before the next test, which the Washington Post's Jay Mathews thinks we should heed. "American schools seem to have absorbed the message that our students have the capacity to achieve more than we have asked them to do. Support for better and more focused math and science courses is increasing," he writes. We should stop talking about some golden age of schooling that never existed, and instead look for ways to create one."

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