Could the Metric System Help Our Student Assessments and Education?

Earlier this month the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) announced its 2012 scores for 15-year-old students in reading, math and science literacy. It also includes

…measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as problem solving. PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling.

For the bottom line: The top 10 countries, had a range of scores from 55.4 to 19.4 for math literacy proficiency level 5 and above, while we scored an 8.8.

Frankly, I was surprised that this news caught some major (if fleeting) media attention. (What to see more coverage? Type “PISA scores” into a search engine and then search “News.” Or, some are complied here.)

Where the top countries scored (partial graph, for whole thing, go here):

Countries with top PISA scores

Countries with top PISA scores

Where the U.S. stands

Where the U.S. stands

The assessment is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics. Given that pedigree, it could be difficult to accuse the test of bias against the United States. I’ve written about our apparent lag in math and science education behind emerging economic entities and its potential relationship to our lack of metric adoption, so let’s see where we stack up this year.

The report states:

In the United States, 9 percent of 15-year-old students scored at proficiency level 5 or above, which was lower than the OECD average of 13 percent. The U.S. percentage was lower than 27 education systems, higher than 22 education systems, and not measurably different than 13 education systems.

And for math literacy:

The U.S. average score was 481, which was lower than the OECD average of 494.

Bottom line: By the time our children are 15 years old, not only are they not in the top of math and science literacy, in many cases they’re barely hanging onto the bottom of average. It’s a sorry situation.

Just having a bad year with the test results?

So, could this be an aberration? Perhaps we were just a little bit off in 2012. On that topic, the report states:

The U.S. average mathematics, science, and reading literacy scores in 2012 were not measurably different from average scores in previous PISA assessment years with which comparisons can be made (2003, 2006 and 2009 for mathematics; 2006, and 2009 for science; and 2000, 2003, and 2009 for reading)

As I’ve written in this blog before, it’s not so much that our students are falling behind, it’s that other counties’ student are making much more rapid progress.

Interestingly, earlier this week I came across the review for a book that seeks to debunk what I (and others) have identified as an American decline. While I’ve been looking at the areas of math and science education, Josef Joffee’s new book, titled The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Econimics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies, apparently takes a much wider view of view of the situation. While I am very hesitant to say much about a book I haven’t read, let me quote from the publisher itself and let you know where I see a major problem:

Buttressing his argument with facts, Joffe demonstrates that America’s future is sanguine. In contrast to the Carter years, the economic woes of the Obama era look more like a nasty migraine. By historical standards, the U.S. defense burden today is extraordinarily low, hence sustainable over the long haul. Immigration (plus a healthy birth rate) will not only keep the nation younger than China, Japan, Europe, and Russia but will continue to bring in the world’s best and brightest. Indeed, America is the “world’s Ph.D. factory” both in science and engineering, while its R&D spending dwarfs the “rising rest.”

[Emphasis mine.]

That last statement above is misleading as far as I can tell. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy so I can look up his source for that statement but based on the research I’ve done so far, that’s not what I’ve found.

According to our National Science Foundation (National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012):

Besides the generally vigorous pace at which the global total of R&D is now growing, the other major trend has been the rapid expansion of R&D performance in the regions of East/Southeast Asia and South Asia, including countries such as China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. The R&D performed in these two Asian regions represented only 24% of the global R&D total in 1999, but accounted for 32% in 2009, including China (12%) and Japan (11%).

[Emphasis mine.]

As for us churning out huge numbers of PhDs, here’s a chart I’ve used before that illustrates where undergraduate degrees in science and engineering are being earned and would seem to indicate that we’re falling behind compared to many of the same countries who are outscoring us (Tough to get a PhD in this country if you’re not first granted a Bachelor of Science) :

STEM degrees

Science and engineering undergraduate degrees worldwide (National Science Foundation)

I do believe that we are getting behind the curve in some ways and our continued lack of metric system adoption is one example.

Sure, we might still be in the lead in some areas but think of all the empires that have come before: the British, Mongol, Roman, French, Ottoman (and many others you’ve probably never even heard of) and ask yourself if they recognized they were about to decline or were sure they’d be on top forever? I’m guessing the latter.

I’m not saying that metric system adoption is a panacea for all our problems but why can’t we at least stop handicapping our children with a measurement system that our competitors dropped many years ago? Our dysfunctional use of our U.S. customary units certainly aren’t helping us progress as a nation.

Happy holidays,

Linda

3 thoughts on “Could the Metric System Help Our Student Assessments and Education?

  1. Every Sunday, I watch Fareed Zakaria on GPS. On Sunday 15 Dec 2013 CE, the topic was education. China has a 230-day school year. The United States has a 180-day school year. When discussing education on GPS, I kept my ears open for any mention of SI / metrication, but I was very disappointed at the lack of any mention of Americans being mathematically illiterate in a global context.

  2. The raw scores don’t mean anything. If we really want to know how our educational system is doing, we need to look at an analysis of the scores, something that takes a few years.

  3. There have been plenty of studies re- teaching the metric system compared to thumbs and feet All come up with the same answer forget feet and thumbs.
    Richard Phelps is one just google him.

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