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Guest Editorial

Americans receiving the least bang for their education buck

DON C. BRUNELL

A survey of high school students in 40 nations shows that, while most U.S. students make good grades in math, they don't make the grade when it comes to math skills.

The U.S. finished in the bottom half of the global survey of 15-year-old students, faring poorer than students in Latvia and the Slovak Republic. Top honors went to students in Hong Kong, Finland and South Korea. The survey, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), reviewed tests given to students in 2003.

The group also looked at how much money was spent on education in various countries and found that the U.S. had the poorest outcome per dollar spent on education. In other words, we received the least bang for our education buck.

Most troubling was an apparent disconnect between grades and performance. Of the U.S. students, 72 percent said they received good grades in math, more than in any other country. Yet their performance ranked 28th out of 40 nations.

This confirms that grades are not always an accurate indicator of ability. That's where Washington state's WASL comes in. The WASL, or Washington Assessment of Student Learning, assesses proficiency in a variety of disciplines, including reading, math, writing and listening.

While results are improving, the WASL results for 10th grade students in Washington track closely with the OECD results. For example, in 2003-2004, 44 percent of Washington 10th graders passed the math portion of the WASL, up from 39.4 percent the previous year. That shows improvement, but the flip side of that result is that 56 percent of our 10th graders failed to make the grade.

In 2008, Washington seniors must pass the WASL in order to graduate. Some critics would like to weaken the WASL standards so students won't be left behind. That's a bad idea. We will do our students a disservice if we send them into the world without the critical thinking skills and abilities they need to succeed.

In today's fast-paced global marketplace, America cannot compete unless our next generation can hold its own in math and science. Those two academic disciplines are the basic skills needed by high-tech companies like Microsoft in Redmond and Schweitzer Engineering Labs in Pullman. They need people who are not just proficient but excel in math and science in order to stay ahead of their competition in Japan, China, India and Germany.

The WASL and the OECD results show that grades don't tell the whole story. Performance is what counts.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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