Math skills are essential for success in many areas, from science and engineering to economics and finance. Some countries seem to do better at teaching math to students than others. But which country has the highest math achievement? Let’s look at the evidence.
What international tests measure math skills?
The two major international assessments that measure math performance of students in different countries are the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
PISA is organized by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It assesses 15-year-old students in reading, math, and science every 3 years. In 2018, 79 countries and economies participated in PISA.
TIMSS is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) every 4 years. It tests the math and science knowledge of 4th and 8th grade students. In 2019, 58 countries took part in TIMSS at the 4th grade level and 39 countries participated at the 8th grade level.
What countries consistently rank at the top in math on PISA?
Here are the top 10 performing countries/economies in the PISA 2018 math assessment:
|Rank||Country/Economy||Average Math Score|
China, Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have consistently ranked at the top in math for the past decade. In fact, Shanghai, China has ranked #1 in PISA math since the exam began in 2003. The region clearly places a strong emphasis on math education and achieves outstanding results.
What countries consistently score highest on TIMSS math?
Here are the top 10 countries in 8th grade math on the 2019 TIMSS assessment:
|Rank||Country||Average Math Score|
Many of the same regions dominate the top spots on both PISA and TIMSS, especially Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. These East Asian nations value math education and have cultures that encourage disciplined study, leading to high achievement.
How does the U.S. compare internationally in math?
The United States does not rank near the top in math on these assessments. On PISA 2018, the U.S. ranked 37th in math with an average score of 478. This was lower than the OECD average score of 489.
On TIMSS 2019, U.S. 8th graders ranked 15th in math with an average score of 495. This was higher than the TIMSS scale average of 529.
While the U.S. performs around average globally, it lags far behind the highest achieving East Asian countries. This math skills gap is concerning for the U.S. economy and STEM readiness.
Why do East Asian students excel at math?
Researchers have studied why students from China, Singapore, Korea, Japan and other Confucian-influenced cultures tend to excel in math and science.
Here are some of the key factors:
- Cultural values that emphasize effort, discipline and academic achievement.
- Parental and societal expectations to do well in math and science.
- National curricula focused on math mastery and problem solving skills.
- Teacher training that develops strong math instruction skills.
- Hard work ethic and perseverance of students.
In many East Asian classrooms, math is taught systematically and rigorously. There is an emphasis on memorization and repeated practice as well as development of conceptual understanding. Teachers have expertise in leading students through problem solving strategies. Cultural influences and family support enable students to work diligently as they progress up the math learning ladder.
How is math education changing with technology?
Technology is transforming mathematics education in many classrooms around the world. Some key trends include:
- Use of tablets, apps and digital tools to explore math concepts through interactive visualization and simulation.
- Adaptive learning programs that customize math lessons to each student’s level and pace.
- Blended learning models combining online and in-person instruction.
- Access to video tutorials, digital textbooks and online learning platforms.
- Math games and programs aimed at increasing student engagement.
Research shows that effective integration of technology can enhance understanding of abstract math concepts. It also helps tailor learning and provides engaging new media. However, traditional teaching approaches remain essential for building skills and proficiency.
How can the U.S. improve its math performance?
For the U.S. to rank higher globally and close its math skills gap with top performers like China and Singapore, experts recommend strategies such as:
- Implementing national standards and curricula for math competency.
- Increasing STEM requirements at the high school level.
- Redesigning teacher training programs to improve math instruction.
- Providing support programs and interventions for struggling students.
- Using instructional time more effectively.
- Engaging students through blended learning, collaborative problem solving, and math competitions.
It will likely require a concerted, long-term effort including cultural shifts in attitudes towards math along with education policy reforms. But improvement in math proficiency will provide individual and national benefits in today’s high-tech world.
In summary, East Asian nations including China, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Taiwan are global leaders in math achievement. Their cultural emphasis on academic excellence, rigorous national curricula, and teacher expertise have proven effective in developing strong math skills. While math education is evolving with technology, foundational teaching practices remain essential. For the U.S. to compete globally, comprehensive efforts must improve how math is taught and learned from elementary school through high school. Mathematical proficiency is a key predictor of student success, so all countries should prioritize helping students master this critical subject.