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Five Surprising Details About Students Who Struggle on International Math Tests


Digging into the the latest data-heavy report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is turning up some interesting and sometimes counterintuitive details on just who is likely to struggle the most on international benchmarking tests in mathematics.

1. Math anxiety is a big problem ...

The OECD data suggest math is a perfect subject for self-fulfilling prophesies. A student's confidence in his own math abilities was a stronger predictor of whether he would be basically proficient in math than his interest, engagement, or perserverence in the subject, and the better the overall math performance in a country, the more students were affected by their own self-doubts.

OECD researchers calculated an index of students' self-efficacy, and across all OECD countries, a student's likelihood of performing at the bottom in math rose 67 percent for every unit lower he fell on that efficacy scale. In the United States, for example, low-performers had significantly lower faith in their own math abilities than students who performed proficiently.

In fact, students who were low-performers in math had a lower sense of self-efficacy than even students who performed below proficient in all three PISA subjects, math, reading, and science. Moreover, those who performed low in math were less likely to show persistence than students who were low-performing in reading or science.

 2. ... but low-performers in math don't neccessarily hate math.

We talk a lot about math anxiety and disengagement leading to poor achievement in the subject, but that doesn't mean students don't look for ways to engage. Sure, OECD found that 15-year-olds who performed below minimum proficiency in math were more than 20 percentage points less likely than high performers to "help my friends with mathematics" (duh) and about 10 percentage points less likely to program computers or chat casually about math with friends.

But they were as likely as any student to participate in math extracurricular activities, and 10 percentage points more likely than high-achieving teenagers to participate in math or chess clubs. Sure, it's possible that Mom, Dad or a teacher pushed their student to join a club as a way to build up math skills, but the students reported belonging to these clubs on their own, and they were more likely to participate in these voluntary activities even when they are less likely to come to class and do the core homework.  As the OECD put it: "Many low-performers do not neccessarily shun activities that require numeracy skills and mental effort, at least when they are presented as recreational and based on social interactions."

3. Extracurriculars don't have to be math-based to help.

Yet other OECD data suggests that low-performing math students shouldn't just be encouraged to get involved with math-related clubs, but creative activities like art, band, choir, or drama too. In the United States, students in schools with few arts or music activities were nearly twice as likely as students at arts-rich schools to perform poorly in math, even after taking into account the wealth of both the student and the school.

That was not an unusual finding. In 45 countries that participated in PISA in 2012, OECD students who attended schools with fewer creative outlets after school were significantly more likely to perform below proficiency in math. Even after taking into account the school's and students' socioeconomic position (as arts extracurriculars can often be a proxy for greater resources generally), 15 countries and economies still showed a significant link between creative activities and math performance. 

4. Homework goes a long way.

Here's an argument for more learning time: Even doing one hour of math homework a week cuts a student's odds of being low-performing by 15 percent, and doing a little more than an hour of homework each school night reduces the odds by a whopping 70 percent, the OECD found:


However, note that the benefits start to fall off after much more than an hour a night. That's in line with other recent research showing multiple hours of homework each night can lead to unhealthy sleep habits and lower longterm achievement for teenagers. And a recent poll finds American teenagers increasingly cite homework as a source of heavy stress.

5. Ability grouping is a mixed bag for math.

Across most OECD countries, students in schools with more ability grouping in class or tracking between classes were more likely to be low-performing in math than were students in schools without ability grouping. But in the United States and a handful of other countries such as Korea, Mexico, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, schools with ability grouping in math had significantly fewer low-performing students in math, even after accounting for the poverty or wealth of the students and schools.

That finding may back up efforts to develop more flexible grouping systems in U.S. schools, to offer students more support or enrichment while also giving students of different ability levels more opportunities to work together.

You can read more on the OECD's study of low-performers here, and find out if you are smarter than a 15-year-old by trying your hand at PISA math questions here.

Photo: Math anxiety, homework effort, and access to arts and other extracurricular activities all may affect a student's likelihood of performing poorly on international tests, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Source: Getty 

Chart: Students who completed on average six hours of homework each week were 70 percent more likely to be proficient on math in the Program for International Student Assessment than were students who did less than an hour a week. Source: OECD


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