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,


Would Adoption of the Metric System Reverse Our Math and Science Education Decline?

Could full metric system adoption in our schools help our sorry STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) situation by saving time (since we wouldn’t need to teach two unrelated systems) and better ground our students in the language of science and medicine? Something I recently came across certainly seems to indicate it should:

Studies in Great Britain and Australia show that the metric changover in their nations could save a fifth of the time previously spent teaching mathematics. A U.S. government report estimates the time saved in our schools could run from 15 to 25 per cent.1

I’ll do some more research to see if I can find further evidence but, in the meantime, here’s some information from two reports I recently noticed that speak to how other countries are kicking our STEM butt.

American Exceptionalism, American Decline? It would appear so

The first report I came across was American Exceptionalism, American Decline? Research, the Knowledge Economy, and the 21st Century Challenge. It was put out a little less than a year ago by the Task Force on American Innovation. And who are those folks? Here are a few names of the organizations it includes that you might recognize: Google, IBM, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dow, P&G, Microsoft, American Physical Society, Qualcomm, Intel and the American Institute of Physics.

STEM degrees

One of the organization’s findings. Is it any wonder we’re falling behind with numbers like these?

At a respectable 44 pages long, it covers a number of issues our nation must address but also outlines some of our STEM challenges. The first line of the report reads:

Despite a strong history of being the world leader in research and discovery, the United States has failed to sufficiently heed indications that our advantage is diminishing and that we may soon be overtaken by other nations in these areas, which are critical to economic growth and job creation.

and a few paragraphs later:

First, the stagnation of the American K-12 education system and the inadequate numbers of U.S. students entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines are threatening the nation’s ability to recruit, train, and retain the scientists and engineers required to create new products and systems.

The report then elaborates about a lack of national science and engineering support and declining federal funding that is hurting our ability to innovate.

What are the implications of world literacy and numeracy skills?

The second report was OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results for the Survey of Adult Skills. (Where OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its United States pages are here.)

The report covers 20 countries, including the United States and “directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills – namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments”  and the implications of those skills, or the lack thereof. At 466 pages, it’s a bit more to go through.

However, its major finding is:

If large proportions of adults have low reading and numeracy skills, introducing and disseminating productivity-improving technologies and work-organisation practices can therefore be hampered… In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others.

And this paragraph, I think, points out how poorly we’re doing at keeping up with the rest of the world (emphasis is mine).

In numeracy, the United States performs around the average when comparing the proficiency of 55-65 year-olds, but is lowest in numeracy among all participating countries when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. This is not necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) or the United States, but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations.

Ranking of numeracy skills

Where our skills (or lack thereof) land us.

We’re finally starting to recognize that we are falling behind in an increasingly technological world. Hopefully we’ll also recognize that metric adoption could assist us halting this  decline.

Thanks for your attention,


1.You and the Metric System, Stover, Allan C. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1974, p. 15.