By Phil Eskeland
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released the results from the latest study on math and science scores of 8th grade students (ages 13-14) in all 50 U.S. states, comparing them to more than 40 countries and sub-national entities around the world. While more than two-thirds of all U.S. states exceeded the average international comparative score of 500, South Korea outpaced them all in math, along with every other country in the world, and all but two U.S. states and two other nations in science.
Scores explained: results between 475 and 549 are an intermediate international benchmark – students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in a variety of situations. They also have a basic knowledge and understanding of practical situations in the sciences.
Scores between 550 and 625 are a high international benchmark – students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a variety of relatively complex mathematical situations. They also can apply their knowledge and understanding of the sciences to explain phenomena in everyday and abstract contexts.
Only once since 1995 did South Korean 8th graders score below the “high” international benchmark but just barely: 549 in science in 1999. Over the past 16 years, 8th grade American students never scored in the “high” benchmark range. In fact, the top U.S. measurement was a score of 534 in science in 1995, which is well within the “intermediate” range. South Korean students have routinely placed in the top two nations in math in every test since 1995 and among the top five nations in science. However, the U.S. only periodically broke into the top ten nations in both math (2007 and 2011) and science (2003 and 2011) over that same time period.
This comports to other reports on skills that have come out recently. As pointed out in a previous blog post (http://blog.keia.org/2013/10/comparing-skill-sets-smong-korean-and-american-adults/), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on the level of skills among adults showed declining math and reading proficiency scores among Americans, particularly those in the age group of 16-24, while young Koreans were rapidly outpacing their peers not just in America but among all other OECD nations except Japan.
This latest study from the U.S. Department of Education shows that while the math and science scores of American 8th graders have generally remained stable over the past 16 years (average score of 517), the scores of South Korean 13-14 year olds have returned, after a brief decline, to historically high levels (average score of 586). Improving basic skill sets, particularly among young people, is foundational to future economic growth and prosperity in any country. Korea has set a good foundation with an emphasis on math and science, which is a critical component to developing an “innovative” economy. In the modern-era, Korea has also recognized the vital importance of workforce development policy – linking technical vocational education and training with employers – that helped propel Korea’s rapid economic growth over the past five decades.
The United States has a deeper but manageable challenge in this area. Historically, vocational education in the United States has been looked down by some in American society as “shop class.” Recently, President Barack Obama emphasized school-to-career programs as a way to put “young people on a path to a good job.” This initiative allows high school students, who might otherwise not go on to higher education, to take college-level courses in math and science. Students work alongside mentors from business to learn specific skills that lead to a good job after graduation. The student graduates not just with a high school diploma but also a two-year Associate’s Degree. This program gets young people excited about math and science, particularly when there is a job waiting for them at the end of their schooling – with no student loan burden! At the Pathways in Technology Early College High (P-TECH) School in Brooklyn, New York that President Obama visited last month, the students graduate with an Associate’s Degree in either computer systems or electromechanical engineering. The Empire State has now set an ambitious goal to place 6,000 students – who are typically not bound for four years in college – throughout all regions of New York into this initiative that was modeled at P-TECH.
While the U.S. government historically plays a relatively small role in primary and secondary education in the United States, this type of “innovative” thinking among state education and business leaders that has long been present in Korea is one way to help close the “skills gap” between available jobs and an inadequately trained workforce. Some estimate that there are as many as 600,000 unfilled jobs in the U.S. because of this gap. However, even in Korea, 480,000 foreign workers, as of May 2012, have been recruited to fill open jobs at 84,000 small firms since 2004 while, at the same time, the youth unemployment rate in Korea continues to remain at more than twice the national average. Now that Korea’s economy is mature and also experiences fierce competition from developing nations, this “school-to-career” model can continue to provide additional choices and options for Korean young people and small business owners looking for qualified workers.
Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
 U.S. scores from National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as The Nation’s Report Card™, and Korean scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), “U.S. States in a Global Context: Results from the 2011 NAEP-TIMSS Linking Study,” National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, October 24, 2013. (http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2013460)
In 2011, Massachusetts and Vermont scored 567 and 561, respectively, in science while Singapore scored 590, Taiwan scored 564, and South Korea scored 560.
 Remarks of President Barack Obama on “Investing in America’s Future” before the student body at the Pathways in Technology Early College High (P-TECH) School, Brooklyn, New York, October 25, 2013.
 The overall unemployment rate in Korea was 3.0 percent in September 2013 while the unemployment rate for high school graduates in Korea was 8.4 percent. College graduates in Korea experienced a 7.3 percent unemployment rate in September 2013. (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/south-korea/unemployment-rate)