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Can the US compete if only 32 percent of its students are proficient in math?

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In the top-scoring places, such as Shanghai, Korea, and Finland, well over 50 percent of students were proficient in math. The proficiency rate in Massachusetts on PISA was 51 percent. One of the largest states, California, had a rate of just 24 percent and was outranked by 36 countries.

At the bottom end, with less than 20 percent of students proficient, were countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, along with Mississippi and the District of Columbia.

The variability in where the states rank stands out to Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in Reston, Va. Part of the problem, he says, is “access and opportunity for kids in math and science – that it’s not a level playing field throughout the country.”

While it won’t be a “quick fix,” Mr. Shaughnessy says, one promising movement to help close those gaps is that 45 states have signed on to new Common Core Standards, which raise expectations in both math and reading and incorporate more skills to ensure that high-schoolers graduate ready for college-level work.

Massachusetts is one of just a few states whose own proficiency standards already are as high as NAEP’s, and its good showing internationally suggests that if all states were able to do what Massachusetts does, the US wouldn’t have a serious problem, Peterson said.

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