High Confidence Not Translating to High Math Scores for American and European Students


Swedish fourth graders are leading the world in mathematics, followed closely by those in other developed European nations, at least if we look at students’ reported self-confidence in the subject. Fully 77% of Swedish students at fourth grade express a high level of confidence about their learning, compared to merely 5% who express a low level. In Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Norway seven out of ten students have high confidence about their mathematics knowledge. One in ten or fewer have low confidence. Self-confidence is somewhat less common amongst US fourth graders, where 67% believe that they perform highly in mathematics and 10% express the opposite view. Unfortunately, this confidence – in America and elsewhere – is not backed up by high achievement.

As shown by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the average US student with high confidence only scored 551 on the test. This is just half a standard deviation from the average score of 500. The phenomenon where many students believe that they are doing well in mathematics – while they are in fact lagging behind other nations – is even more evident in several European nations. In Sweden the average score of the self-identified high achievers is only 514. The sureness of Swedish students seems to rise from a progressive school system. As more focus is put on promoting self-expression and raising self-esteem than on actual knowledge gathering and hard work, students with only slightly higher international scores identify themselves as being high achievers.

When competing in the global marketplace, or applying for top universities, the self-identified high-achievers of Europe and the US are challenged by students from places such as Hong Kong and Singapore – where the school systems focus more on actual achievements and thrift. In Hong Kong and Singapore 46% of fourth graders identify themselves as high achievers. On average they score impressively 634 and 639 respectively on the international math test. Even the students who have a low self-confidence in Singapore score 544 on the international test. This is considerably higher than the values reached by those believing themselves to be high-achievers in Sweden and close to that of the same group in the US.

Hong Kong’s self-identified low-achievers score on average 574. The students who believe themselves to have low math skills in Hong Kong thus outperform those who believe themselves to have high skills in the US. In an increasingly knowledge intensive society, policy leaders should ask themselves what this western complacency does with the urge to learn more?

We should of course never blame the students, who simply react to the school system and the overall society created by their adults. It is the societies that are created by the adults who should consider changing. Encouraging high confidence in general is of course a good thing. But why not focus more on actually teaching out than focusing on self-esteem regardless of achievement?  

Norway is Perhaps the most interesting nation in terms of the gap between self-perception and reality. This may in part due to the country’s oil wealth that has allowed it to remain the only European country yet to challenge a traditional social democratic model. In Norway, public handouts can be as generous as work income.

Not surprisingly, the previously strong Nordic working ethic of the country seems to have plummeted while student perceptions of their own knowledge have strongly inflated. Fully 69% of Norwegian students have a high confidence regarding their math scores. On average this groups scores only 490 on the international test – below the international average.

In the same study, standardized tests are also given to eighth graders. Again, the average global score is set to 500. We can see that as students grow up, their perceptions somewhat adapt to reality. Only 49% of eighth graders in Sweden have high confidence, scoring on average 528. Half of Norway’s eight graders share the same optimistic view, scoring slightly above the average global values (505). In the United States, 53% of students have high confidence regarding their mathematic learning, with an average score of 537. Hong Kong and Singapore   students also face a reality check. Only 30% of the eight graders in the former country and 41% in the latter country have high confidence relating to their math knowledge. However, even the eighth graders with low confidence in these two countries do better on average than those with high confidence in the US and many rich European nations.

To be sure, mathematic scores are far from the only metrics of educational success. Mathematics is however interesting since it is a vital tool for logical reasoning and since skills in this subject can be readily compared amongst students from different cultures. Mathematics scores are deemed to be so important since they give a good expression of how much knowledge and analytical ability students in different nations have.

The progressive elements in the school systems in Norway, Sweden and the US seem to foster inflated views about mathematic knowledge that is not backed up by actual knowledge. I am sure there is much good to say about the softer school systems in these countries compared to more knowledge-focused school systems in for example South East Asia. Studying in a soft school system, after all, leads to less stress.

But at the same time, life is not always soft. The adults have a responsibility to create a system where as many students as possible are given good opportunities to further their knowledge, working-ethics and analytical ability. Without this human capital, many will face difficulties in the real world. Perhaps the school systems in rich European countries and the US could empower their students in the long-term by teaching the necessary knowledge, and making their students aware of their performance-gap in a global competition.

Dr. Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish author of Kurdish-Iranian origin. He has written numerous books and reports about issues such as entrepreneurship, women's career opportunities, integration, and welfare.

School bus photo by BigStockPhoto.com.


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the top 5% of our very best, ranks 23rd internationally... how can we compete with a high-skill economy if we suck at math and science? Democrats are failing our students, to make emotive idiots who can't provide for themselves, and therefore will be dependent on the Government. The problems of this country are so overwhelming, and the matter is compounded by the passing of time.

I wish there was a way to bleed out the infrastructure of the Left. Perhaps start with ending this sending of children to Academia, which are essentially leftist seminaries, to boycotting Dancing with the Stars and 2 and a half men. Our forefathers fought the nazi's, the communists, the confederate, and our simple task is to stop supporting the Left, yet people can't even sacrifice their Mad Men. This is depressing.

This is an excellent article

This is an excellent article on the difference between students confidence vs. the real levels of their achievement. Choosing to study mathematics was a good move because it removes a level of 'grade norming' that would otherwise make the results questionable.
I have worked with young people that have been educated within the past 20 years and a huge percentage of them have difficulty writing a relatively clear sentence and their spelling is frequently amusing, albeit in a sad sort of way.
A good basic education used to be the norm for 66% or more of students in the US. Now I think that level of mastery is probably attained by closer to 33% of students in the US.

brain vs achievement

I think confidence contributes more to the achievement in the real life of students after they finish their studies, or even if they don't. Just take for example the big achievers in society, bill gates, steven jobs, etc. It's not the grades that matter but how one person can connect to other people

Gifted teachers probably most important

It has very interestingly been found, too, that some particularly gifted teachers have an unusually high rate of achievement in real life among their students, even though they only had those students for one year. John Taylor Gatto, for example.