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Kristof argues 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's basic point is correct: American students really are bad at math, particularly at applying what they've learned in the real world. Math teachers and elected officials from both parties are right to be concerned. But American kids aren't really worse than students in Ghana or Armenia. And Kristof's method — cherry-picking problems from a test on which American students, on average, do pretty well in comparison — actually undermines what he's trying to argue.
What Kristof gets wrong
The problem, as Bob Somerby pointed out: the questions Kristof picked, from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey, a standardized test of eighth-graders, are terrible examples. American students didn't answer those questions well compared with their peers around the world. But they performed much worse on the questions he cites than on the test as a whole.
When you look at the entire test, American eighth-graders aren't bad at all. They did better than average on many questions. And overall, American students scored slightly above average — worse than students in Korea, Singapore, and Japan, but on par with Finland's celebrated test-takers.
This could make you wonder why there's a panic about math education at all. Different international tests measure different things, and some make the US look worse than others.