ONCE AGAIN, U.S. STUDENTS ARE BEHIND. Results released in December show
that American teenagers scored 13 points below average in math on the Program of
International Student Assessment (PISA)—a trend that has changed little since tests
were first given in 2000. U.S. students outperformed in mathematics literacy only 26
of the 64 other education systems that participated. And they were 132 points behind
Shanghai students, who scored the highest.
This has many concerned. In a society that’s increasingly dependent on high-tech
products that require people with good math skills to design and engineer, it’s hard
not to think our nation is at risk of falling behind. For the U.S. actuarial profession,
which depends on a population with superior math skills, Americans’ poor performance in math literacy might set off alarm bells. But should it?
Is the Sky Really Falling?
It’s easy to hear “below average” and worry. Stanford economist
Eric A. Hanushek, in an interview with the New York Times,
warned that U.S. students’ poor math performance could have
long-lasting, negative effects on the country. “Our economy has
still been strong because we have a very good economic system
that is able to overcome the deficiencies of our education sys-
tem,” he said. “But increasingly, we have to rely on the skills of
our workforce, and if we don’t improve that, we’re going to be
Couple the poor PISA test scores with the fact that math lit-
eracy among American adults doesn’t seem to be much better
(according to a federal study, only 18 percent of American adults
can calculate how much a carpet will cost if they know the size
of the room and the price per square yard of the carpet), and the
sky does, indeed, seem to be falling.
Others, however, see a bit of Chicken Little panic in the
rhetoric, noting that American students have never been top
performers on international tests dating back to the 1960s, yet
the country is still a leader in innovation.
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Labor,
about one in three college graduates is working in a job that
doesn’t require a degree. Given this, the national campaign
to push students toward the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields of study might not be the best course.
“There are not as many STEM jobs as people think,” said Emily
Redman, an assistant professor at the University of Massachu-
setts-Amherst who specializes in the history of science. “There’s
this divide between the rhetoric of the importance of these fields
and the reality of how it fits into employment.”
Redman thinks people should be wary of accepting the test
scores at face value. “Don’t forget that numbers can be easily
manipulated,” she said. “There are many different ways to take
data and measure how students are doing. Various metrics can
be used to take a picture that shows us performing worse or bet-
ter.” Redman added, “I think it’s overstated and oversimplified to
say, ‘We’re not doing as well in math as we should.’ Those who
are interested in seeing that there’s funding for math education
benefit from a crisis. You’re not going to get money for schools
and curriculum development if the report comes back saying,
‘We’re doing great.’”
Yet in 2012, only 46 percent of all high school graduates who
took the ACT met college-readiness benchmark standards for
mathematics. Anecdotally, several professors of actuarial sci-
ence see a decrease in math skills among their students.
Ron Gebhardtsbauer, an actuarial professor at Penn State
University, thinks students today aren’t as prepared as they
need to be. “Even some students who come in thinking they’re
good at math may not be,” he said. “If a student tells me they
want to be an actuarial student, I tell them my typical students I L L