National Data | The Stupid American? Look again.
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Psssst: Have you heard? We've lost our competitive edge.

Historically the U.S. economy excelled because of the skills and smarts of our workers. But no longer. America's workforce increasingly lags that of other countries in math and literacy skills. We need their brainpower!

At first glance, this assertion seems plausible. Math literacy scores for 15-year old students in the U.S. ranked in the lower half of 41 countries studied in 2003. [ECONOMIC IMPACT: Education statistics don't bode well for our future, By Chris Chmura,  Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dec 19, 2005]

U.S. adults ranked 12th among 20 high income countries in composite (document, prose, and quantitative) literacy, according to a separate report released by the Educational Testing Service.

A staggering 45 percent of adult Americans cannot read or write at the high school graduate level—and nearly half of those (20 percent) scored at a literacy level below that of a high school dropout. [Educational Testing Service, "The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality," February 2002]

International rankings can be misleading, however—especially when many of the countries are small and exhibit little variation in average test scores. Thus, despite our mediocre ranking, the mean literacy test score for U.S. adults (272) was 2 points above the mean for all adults in the 20 country survey (270).

The 2 point gap is not statistically significant…...but we'll take it.

Larger, statistically significant, literacy gaps between us and them unfold when you separate immigrant from native-born test takers, as is done in 17 high income countries surveyed by ETS. [Table 1]

  • U.S. natives scored 8 points above the average native of the 17 high income countries


  • U.S. immigrants scored 16 points below the average immigrant in the 17 countries

There are several reasons why immigrants exert more of a literacy drag here than elsewhere.

First, they account for a larger share of the population. At the time of the international literacy survey (1994) immigrants accounted for about 13 percent of U.S. adults, fifth highest proportion among the countries surveyed. Only in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Switzerland did immigrants account for a larger population share.

Second—and far more important—is the abnormally wide gap between native and immigrant literacy capabilities in the U.S. Here are the average scores and the proportions by which natives outscore immigrants:

  • U.S.: immigrants 210; natives 284; 74 points, or 35 percent


  • 17 countries: immigrants 226; natives 276; 50 points, or 22 percent

The immigrant-native differential is still larger among high school dropouts—a group that covers one-third of adult U.S. immigrants and only 13 percent of natives:

  • U.S.: immigrant dropouts 149; native dropouts 225; 76 points, or 51 percent


  • 17 countries: immigrant dropouts 177; native dropouts 243; 66 points, or 37 percent

Needless to say, immigration is not the only factor behind our weak literacy scores. The literacy gap between native-born whites and Asians and their Black and Hispanic counterparts ranges from 46 points, or 19 percent, on the prose and document literacy tests, to 57 points, or 25 percent, on the quantitative test.

The wide dispersion of capabilities forces the ETS Bureaucracy to state the politically incorrect, albeit obvious:

"If we adjust the mean NALS scores for U.S. adults under age 65 to exclude all foreign-born adults as well as native-born Blacks and Hispanics, then the mean prose and quantitative scores of the remaining U.S. adults (Asian and White, native-born) would rise to 288, ranking the U.S. second highest—tied with Finland and Norway—on the prose scale and fifth highest on the quantitative scale…. The findings clearly suggest that future gains in the comparative, international literacy standing U.S. adults will require substantial improvements in the literacy proficiencies of Blacks, Hispanics, and the foreign born from all racial/ethnic groups." [ETS Report, P.22]

Or we could settle for immigration reform.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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