Someone asked me this question today. Why do you honestly believe that high school math test scores in America (particularly the United States) are low compared to other countries? I thought about this question a lot, and I honestly think it has to do with another question and that is the following:

Why has there been a rapid decline of responsibility for students in the United States of America? What inspired this movement? Was it parent-driven? Was it student-driven? Was it stress-related and done for emotional reasons? Was it about equity? There has to be a reason for it, and I can't put my finger on it.

There has been this gradual decline of responsibility for students to do anything now which has led to this deficit. There is no demand to do problems 1-30 and 40-55* (odds) anymore. Turn your homework a few days late. No worries or responsibility there! We now allow retakes on all assessments and don't hold students responsible to study and do well the first time. There was this big retake your test to understand the material movement when I was in school, and there was no responsibility for students to study the first time to do well. Now, there are no more timed tests for multiplication tests; you can count on your fingers and understand (6)(3)=18 because you have to understand six groups of three is eighteen. There's no responsibility to memorize that! Other countries have stepped up their homework, timed tests, and responsibility. In America, we don't hold students responsible for retaining any common sense math skills based on pop quiz assessments like we used to. I find continually that students don't know what basic terms are such as mean, volume, and really trivial math skills as there is no responsibility for students to memorize and retain these facts at a young age via our assessments. Instead, we just assess one common core standard a day and call it good at that. You also can get a 4.0 with proficiencies and get 4 questions wrong. So, again my question is why has there been this shift away from this responsibility?

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    $\begingroup$ "high school math test scores in America are low compared to other countries" What leads you to believe that this is true? Could you provide a source for this claim? $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    Jul 9, 2021 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ I've been directly hearing about the decline of U.S. students in mathematics since the 1970s, and when I've browsed older library journal volumes of Mathematics Teacher and School Science and Mathematics and other such journals, "the sky is falling" war cry seems to reappear and reappear and reappear well back to the early 1900s. It seems that most everyone, regardless of age, considers the education of those following them by 10 to 20 years as being deficient compared to their own education. I suspect much of this is comparing apples to oranges -- those who are complaining (continued) $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2021 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ are comparing themselves and their peers (well above average academically, as these are people who went to college and probably also graduate school) to the average level students 10 to 20 years younger than them. And some of this supposed decline is also likely due to selective forgetfulness (or actual forgetfulness if old enough). Of course, one can also argue by mentioning standardized test scores, but (for example) when you increase the percentage from 20% or so to over 70% taking the SAT (as was the case from my high school peers to students now), of course scores are going to drop. $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2021 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ This is a rant, not a question. The factual claims it makes seem doubtful to me. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Jul 9, 2021 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ why these things have changed all at once --- This claim seems doubtful to me. $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2021 at 16:03

1 Answer 1


Some of us would point to political pressures to evidence higher "success" in terms of increased graduation rates, which wind up pressuring institutions to reduce standards and pass students regardless of whether they've mastered material skills or not.

Note that U.S. high school graduation rates have been spiking upwards in recent years, which provides opportunities for systems and states to congratulate and defend themselves:

Increasing U.S. high school graduation rates 1990-2015

Image from Wikipedia. Note this is in the context of an article discussing how college graduation rates are failing to increase significantly in the same time frame.

Here's an article on the CUNY (City of New York) University Faculty Senate blog in 2017 summarizing this trend towards higher-graduation-from-high-school, but lower-preparation-for-college rates, with a number of interesting links for further reference:

Both the State and the City of New York have recently reported a rise in high school graduation rates. But college preparedness still leaves much to be desired. It presents a major challenge for colleges that admit students whose reading, writing and mathematical skills are not at the level needed for academic success.

Close to 80 percent of the Department of Education (DOE) graduates entering CUNY in the Fall of 2015 needed remediation of some kind. While the NYC DOE cites a 79 percent graduation rate as evidence that schools are improving, only an average 37 percent of students graduate college-ready...

Both the State and City have been altering their standards for graduation to boost those numbers. Now CUNY has changed its requirements and methods for placing people into remedial classes.

What this portends remains to be seen for students just entering into credit bearing courses with skills that are even lower than in the recent past. One strategy is to provide a non-algebra path to a degree. Such intellectual skills and mental habits as might be inculcated by the mastery of algebra are thus being set aside in the hopes that those no longer burdened by graduation requirements including algebra will graduate and find some sort of employment.

Indeed, since that blog post was written, CUNY has waived the requirement for an elementary algebra skills test (at roughly the 9th grade level) that was previously required for graduation -- precisely because it was found to be impossible to structure such an exam in a way that everyone would pass it. Moreover, they've eliminated all entry-placement tests and remedial courses (leading the way among other large institutions in the U.S.); this disposes of the embarrassment around the "percent [who] needed remediation" number, as it simply doesn't exist anymore. And they've declared by fiat that all students will be entered to college-credit bearing classes regardless of skill level. For example, from a 2019 university memo on the new "corequisite" course model (emphasis as in original):

The college must allow enrollment of students who are not skills proficient.

Scherer & Anson in their book Community Colleges and the Access Effect make the point that high schools practically guaranteeing graduation, and community colleges guaranteeing acceptance via open admissions, set up students to not perceive hard work as a requirement (Chapter 8; quoting from Skelly & Laurence, "Tracking College Readiness", The School Administrator 2011):

Community colleges’ open enrollment policies have a negative effect on student motivation during high school particularly during the senior year. Seniors going to a “JC” (junior college) know their admission is guaranteed, so they often slack off and avoid challenging course work, particularly during their senior year. The bad habits formed in high school are not easily shaken.

In light of this perceived end-game to the political pressure for increased graduation rates (previously at high schools, and now at least at lower-level, public-funded colleges), we might reflect more generally on what is known as Campbell's Law:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

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    $\begingroup$ That makes sense now!!! I didn't even think of it like that. Thank you for the in-depth response; I appreciate it. $\endgroup$
    – W. G.
    Jul 9, 2021 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ "college preparedness leaves much to be desired" not because of lazy students, but because inefficient reading instruction takes three years instead of half a year, watered-down algebra starts in 9th grade, middle school "science" is a joke, physics is a 1-year course and is not mandatory, geometry is almost non existent, there is no geography or astronomy... In short, because American elementary and secondary school system is an inefficient 500-pound gorilla. Between greedy privatizers and public system, I have hard time endorsing the latter. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Jul 11, 2021 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ Ending remediation in math at community colleges is actually a reasonable policy, because the number of students who get through remedial math courses and progress to college-level math is very close to zero. Some students at my school used to get placed into the remedial classes because they hadn't reviewed their math before the placement test or took it in a hurry. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Jul 11, 2021 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell: We can agree, as you've assessed before, that most students may be unable to ever succeed at 9th-grade algebra. But the specifics of remediation delivery are just a side issue. They key point in the example is that basic algebra was formerly a requisite skill for graduation and now it's not. So the point stands: Standards have been reduced to increase graduation rates; and there's ever less reason for those students to work at their high school math classes. $\endgroup$ Jul 12, 2021 at 15:16

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