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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Education Spin

Last year, we were getting smarter. This year, not so much.


Last year, the president touted U.S. gains in education, saying that our "fourth- and eighth-graders achieved the highest math scores on record." He bragged that "African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs." Last week, the president said those eighth-graders weren't so great at math after all. He claimed they had "fallen to ninth place" in the world, and he bemoaned a high school dropout rate that had "tripled" over three decades.


What a difference a year makes.

Last year President Bush was talking up improvements that had occurred since his No Child Left Behind Act was implemented. This year President Obama is making a case for spending more on teachers' salaries, early education and more as part of his new agenda. We certainly wouldn't argue that education can't be improved, but some of the figures Obama used painted a bleaker picture than actually exists:

  • The high school dropout rate hasn't "tripled in the past 30 years," as Obama claimed. According to the Department of Education, it has actually declined by a third.
  • Eighth-grade math scores haven't "fallen" to ninth place compared with other countries. U.S. scores have climbed to that ranking from as low as 28th place in 1995.
  • Obama also set a goal "of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" by 2020. But in terms of bachelor's degrees, we're nearly there. The U.S. is already second only to Norway in the percentage of adults age 25 to 64 with a four-year degree, and trails by just 1 percentage point.


Whether the education system in the U.S. has improved greatly or needs great improvement may depend on whether a president is nearing the end or just beginning his time in office.

In his final State of the Union address, President George W. Bush claimed student test scores had gone up after enactment of his education legislation. As we said at the time, he was mostly correct. Bush said for example that in 2007, fourth- and eighth-graders "achieved the highest math scores on record." We noted that the "record" of scores dates back only to 1990, and also that Bush failed to note a decline in reading scores for eighth-graders, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But, in general, test scores have risen since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law.

Touting those cheery stats, however, wasn’t exactly on President Barack Obama’s agenda last week when he spoke about education to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Just as Bush left out any mention of less-than-rosy assessments of the nation's education system, Obama didn't say too much about how smart our kids are. And some of his gloomy claims were just plain wrong, or misleading.

High School Dropout

One line left us wondering whether Obama needed to brush up his high school math:

Obama: Not when our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years. Not when high school dropouts earn about half as much as college graduates. And not when Latino students are dropping out faster than just about anyone else.

Let's start with what he got right: He's correct that the dropout rate for Hispanic students is much higher than for any other group. And according to a report by the Census Bureau, full-time, year-round workers over age 25 who have earned a bachelor's degree make more than twice as much, on average, as those who did not complete high school.

But the claim that "our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years"? That's not even in the ballpark. According to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the "status dropout rate" – defined as the percentage of people between ages 16 and 24 who are not in school and do not have high school diplomas or GEDs – was 9.3 percent in 2006. In 1976, 30 years before that, it was 14.1. That's actually a 34 percent decrease in the high school dropout rate.

Of course, dropout rates are notoriously hard to measure and compare. For instance, while NCES shows a status dropout rate of 9.3 in 2006, the high school completion rate for that year was only 74.8 percent. Why the discrepancy? Instead of counting people of a certain age with a diploma or equivalency certificate, this figure compares the number of high school freshman in a certain year to the number receiving a high school diploma four years later. Those who take more than four years to finish aren't counted, nor are students who get GEDs instead of diplomas. But using this calculation still doesn't back up Obama's claim. The dropout rate – that is, the discrepancy between incoming freshmen and graduates – would have been 25.2 percent in the 2006-2007 school year. The rate in 1976-1977 was 25.6 percent.

Even pessimistic accounts don't show a tripled dropout rate. According to a report by the Educational Testing Service, titled "One Third of a Nation" after the number of students they say are high school dropouts, high school completion rates peaked at 77.1 percent in 1969 and dropped to 69.9 percent in 2000. (NCES shows higher numbers in both years.);That would put dropout rates at 22.9 and 30.1 percent respectively – a 30 percent increase over 31 years. As many sixth-graders could tell you, tripling would mean a 200 percent increase.

So where did Obama's figure come from? A White House spokesman pointed us to a report by the College Board, which said: "The rate at which American students disappear from school between grades nine and 12 has tripled in the last 30 years." But the College Board's report included a mistake, which it later corrected: The rate really refers to what happened between grades nine and 10. More important, however, it is not really a "dropout rate." The College Board report in turn cites a 2004 study by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, which actually shows a tripling of the attrition rate between grades nine and 10, not the dropout rate. In other words, the difference between the number of students enrolled in grade nine in one year and the number enrolled in grade 10 the next year has increased threefold. At the same time, there has been a corresponding threefold increase in grade nine enrollments relative to grade eight. The report shows more ninth-graders failing that grade, not dropping out.

NBETPP reports: This combination, of increasing attrition of students between grades 9 and 10, and increasingly more students enrolled in grade 9 relative to grade 8, is surely a reflection of the fact that more students nationally were being flunked to repeat grade 9.

A threefold increase in students being held back could certainly be considered a matter of concern. But it is not by any stretch of the imagination a tripling of the dropout rate.

Correction, March 26: We originally said the quote in the College Board report pertained to students between grades nine and 12. We revised this section to reflect the College Board's correction.

Better, Not Worse at Math

While Bush boasted last year that "eighth-graders achieved the highest math scores on record," Obama said their math scores had "fallen to ninth place" in the world. Which is it?

Well, Bush was basing his claim on tests of only U.S. students by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, which started testing math skills in 1990. And he's correct. Obama's stat is an international measurement by the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) from the U.S. Department of Education, which does show U.S. eighth-graders in ninth place, behind places including Chinese Taipei, Korea, Singapore and Hungary. But the president was misleading when he said our eighth-graders had "fallen" to that ranking. As our colleagues at PolitiFact pointed out, in 1995, U.S. eighth-graders were in 28th place and in 2003, they had jumped to 15th place. Now, they're even smarter, comparatively speaking.

Big Country on Campus?

Obama misleadingly implied that American college graduation rates are falling behind:

Obama: In just a single generation, America has fallen from second place to eleventh place in the portion of students completing college. … That is why, in my address to the nation the other week, I called on Americans to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, with the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.

It’s true that, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as recently as 1995, the U.S. and New Zealand led the way in percentage of college degree holders. But by 2006 (the last year for which OECD has data), 11 countries had a higher percentage of either two- or four-year college graduates among their 25- to 34-year-old populations.

As for "having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" by 2020, well, that might not be so difficult, depending on what measure one uses. Among adults age 25 to 64, the U.S. already has the second highest percentage of college graduates with a four-year degree in the world (30 percent), trailing Norway by a single percentage point. Using the 25-to-34 bracket and including both two- and four-year degrees, however, the U.S. lags 16 percentage points behind Canada. It is unlikely that the U.S. could make up that much ground in 11 years.

But however one slices up the numbers, the fact is that U.S. graduation rates have actually been extremely consistent for the past decade. Americans are graduating from college at about the same pace as usual; other countries have simply caught up and, in some cases, moved ahead.

It’s worth noting, too, that comparing college graduation rates across countries is a bit like comparing apples with lots of non-appley things. For starters, tertiary education varies significantly by country. In the U.S., a bachelor’s degree requires approximately four years of study. In the U.K., however, programs are more typically three years, whereas in Germany, programs often last five or more years and result in a degree that is comparable to a master’s degree in the U.S.

Perhaps even more significant, the OECD report compares countries that are vastly different. Norway, for example, has roughly the population and per capita wealth of Massachusetts, and according to the Census Bureau, Norway trails the Bay State’s college graduation rate by about 6 percentage points. The U.S. bests the college graduation rates of the similar-size and prosperous European Union in every category but one, and that one is a tie.

U.S. vs. Singapore

Another line in the same speech also took us aback: "Singapore's middle-schoolers outperform ours three-to-one." Wow.

We asked the White House where that figure came from a spokesman pointed us to the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). And it's true that the study contains two tables showing U.S. eighth-graders stacking up at least that poorly against those from Singapore: The percentage of U.S. eighth-graders who reached the TIMMS advanced international benchmark (the highest level) in science in 2007 was 10, while 32 percent of Singapore's scored at that level. In math, our students look even worse: Six percent of U.S. eighth-graders hit the advanced benchmark, while 40 percent of Singapore's did.

But Obama did a bit of cherry-picking to make the U.S. look that bad (although we suppose that it's more lumps of coal than cherries). In a study full of tables, he found the ones where U.S. students had their worst showing. Instead, he could have used the most frequently cited statistics from the TIMMS study, the average mathematics and science scores by country. Singapore's kids still do better than American ones, but not by nearly so much. Math scores for eighth-graders in 2007 were 593 for Singapore and 508 for the U.S. In science the gap was a bit narrower: Singapore 567, U.S. 520.

And had Obama taken the glass-half-full approach, he could have looked at trend lines. Between 1995 and 2007, average math scores of U.S. eighth-graders have gone up 16 points, while those of Singapore's eighth-graders have gone down by that same amount. In science, U.S. eighth-graders have gained 7 points during that period, while Singapore's have lost 13 points.

Some Education Stats Are Gloomy

To be sure, it’s not that difficult to find figures that show our kids could do better or our academic standards could be more rigorous. Other claims in Obama’s speech checked out, such as:

  • He said “our curriculum for eighth-graders is two full years behind top performing countries.” That's based on a 2005 report specifically on math curricula by the then-director of the National Research Center for TIMSS. The report "estimated that at the end of eighth grade U.S. students are some two or more years behind." It’s worth noting that not all states are at the same level. Minnesota, for one, worked with the author of that 2005 study, William Schmidt, to establish new math standards for fourth grade and saw its scores shoot up, surpassing the U.S. as a whole. The state would rank fifth in the world.
  • Obama criticized the wide variation in state proficiency test standards, saying: "Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming – and getting the same grade." A study released by the Department of Education in 2007 did find such a wide gap between the proficiency standards for fourth-grade reading set by Wyoming and Mississippi. A look at the PowerPoint presentation on the results by the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics shows Mississippi trails all states in this regard.

– by Lori Robertson, Jess Henig, Joe Miller and Viveca Novak


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. "Digest of Education Statistics," 2007.

Day, Jennifer Cheeseman and Eric C. Newburger. "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings." United States Census Bureau, July 2002.

Barton, Paul. "One Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities." Educational Testing Service. Feb. 2005.

College Board. "Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future," Dec. 2008.

Haney, Walt et al. "The Education Pipeline in the United States 1970-2000." The National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, Jan. 2004.

Gonzales, Patrick, et. al. “Highlights from TIMSS 2007: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context.” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Dec. 2008.

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Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “Education at a Glance 2008: OECD Indicators,” 2008.

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Michigan State University. “MSU scholars help Minnesota become global leader in math,” press release, 9 Dec. 2008.

Schneider, Mark. National Assessment of Educational Progress; Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 7 June 2007.