Americans Are Bad at Math

image credit: Caltech Magazine

By Alison Harner ’24

Being bad at math has become an internet trend in recent years, with low scores and comprehension as the punchline of many popular memes and TikToks. What isn’t funny is the plummeting scores on American standardized math tests. Jon Marcus of The Independent summarizes the rising issue in his editorial, “America’s Poor Math Skills Raise Alarms Over Global Competitiveness.” Marcus argues that math, computer, engineering, and other STEM skills are growing necessities in American careers, but the average mathematical capabilities of American students aren’t very promising. 

Most other recent articles agree with most of Marcus’s points. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says that “young adults from the United States rank poorly in reading but are even worse in math — the worst of all countries tested.” Kristof provides examples of several simple math problems that less than 20% of American 8th graders could answer, while over 50% of 8th graders from other countries from Palestine to Gana could answer correctly. 

Many predict that the next great technological advances will come from other countries, like China and Russia, whose math and STEM programs yield much stronger results than those in the US. According to Marcus, the Defense Department is calling for widespread initiatives to improve the quality of education in STEM subjects, especially at the pre-college level. It reported that China has eight times the amount of college graduates in these disciplines. 

Some reporters, like Libby Nelson of Vox, find some disparities with these statistics, claiming that there are some statistical errors in how the scores are calculated, and, in reality, “American eighth-graders aren’t bad at all. They did better than average on many questions.” Despite this, workplace trends still point to weaknesses in the American STEM education system when it comes to applying skills in the real world. 

Mathematics is becoming an essential element of every career, not just those directly related to the subject. According to Stanford economist Sean Reardon and other researchers, if downward pandemic math trends do not reverse, students in kindergarten through 12th grade will earn 2-9% less than generations before them in their careers. This is detrimental to the future economy and productivity of the nation. 

While Marcus does not discuss causes and solutions, in my opinion, the biggest driving factor in our nation’s mathematical struggles is the stigma and stereotypes surrounding success in that area. Those who work hard in their math classes are labeled “nerds” and “try-hards” out of the insecurity of their peers, when instead they should be praised for their efforts.

Additionally, programs from an earlier age should be strengthened. Math should never be treated like a challenge that some people just “don’t get,” but should instead be taught as a necessary tool, like reading or writing. Kids should be pushed from an early age to succeed above the current expectation, and they should be enrolled in extra help programs, if necessary.

If our nation does not continue to raise the bar in mathematical success, especially in elementary and middle school, where the basics are taught, it will cause extreme harm to the productivity and success of the country. 


Marcus, Jon. “America’s Poor Math Skills Raise Alarms Over Global Competitiveness.” The Independent, 26 Sept. 2023,

Kristof, Nicholas. “Opinion | Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?” The New York Times, 25 Apr. 2015,

Nelson, Libby. “American Students Might Be Better at Math than You Think.” Vox, 27 Apr. 2015, Accessed 4 Mar. 2024.

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