International Competitiveness

Given increasing global competition, the demands on the graduates of our K–12 system are much more pressing. Instantaneous communication, interconnected financial markets, and the spread of wealth and prosperity around the globe have made competition for work and products steeper every day. It is no longer sufficient for our schools to prepare students to succeed in their town, city, or state; schools have to think about how those students match up to their peers from around the world.

No group of students is spared from this, so we thought it important to look at the performance of African-American students on a range of indicators that can give us some insight into how they compare with their international peers. American students as a whole tend to lag on the following indicators, and given that African-American students tend to lag in the nation as a whole, comparing them to a set of international students reveals an even greater gap.

The first indicator is passage rates on the 10 Advanced Placement (AP) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) exams (Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Computer Science A, Environmental Science, Physics 1 and 2, Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, Physics C: Mechanics, and Statistics). STEM fields are growing around the globe, and can be a source of stable, high-paying work. According to STEM advocacy group Change the Equation, STEM jobs are slated to grow at a rate of 17% between 2014 and 2024, while non-STEM jobs are slated to grow at only a 12% rate.[1] But it won’t be only American students looking for those jobs; educated young people from all over the world will be competing.

Unfortunately, African-American students pass AP STEM exams at low rates. The national average for African-American graduates of the class of 2014 is only 2.6%. Only three states saw more than 5% of the African-Americans in their graduation class pass at least one AP STEM exam during high school—Colorado at 5.9%, Massachusetts at 5.4%, and Hawaii at exactly 5%. At the other end of the spectrum, four states saw less than 1% of African-American students graduate having passed an AP STEM exam—West Virginia at 0.7%, Missouri at 0.7%, Louisiana at 0.5%, and Mississippi at 0.4%.

The second indicator is passage rates on AP World Language exams. To succeed in a global business environment, it can be helpful for students to know a foreign language. The College Board offers eight World Language exams—Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Spanish Language, and Spanish Literature.

Unfortunately, passage rates are abysmally low for African-American students on these tests. The national average passage rate for African-American students in the class of 2014 was a paltry 0.5%. Only four states saw more than 1% of their African-American graduates pass a World Language exam—Vermont at 2.3%, Massachusetts at 1.9%, Florida at 1.2%, and Colorado at 1.1%.

The third indicator looks at how well African-American students perform on international assessments. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam is given every three years to a representative sample of 15-year-old students in 65 education systems around the world. It tests mathematics, science, and reading. On the 2012 exam, African-American students in the United States scored an average of 421 in math, which was significantly lower than the national average of 481 and lower than the international average of 494.[2] In reading, African-American students scored an average of 443, again lower than the national average of 498 and the international average of 496.[3] In science, African-American students scored an average of 439, lower than the national average of 497 and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 501.[4]

One way to interpret these results is to ask the question “If African-American students were their own country, what country would their performance most resemble?” With an average score of 421 in math, African-American students are on par with students from Chile (average score 423), Malaysia (421), and Mexico (413). In reading, the average score of 443 looks like the performance of students from Thailand (441), Bulgaria (436), and Romania (438). In science, the average score of 439 resembles students from Romania (439), Cyprus (438), and Serbia (445).[5]

2012 PISA Results

  Math Reading Science
African-American Average 421 443 439
U.S. Average 481 498 497
OECD Average 494 496 501


[1] Change the Equation. The Diversity Dilemma. 2015.

[2] National Center for Education Statistics. Programme for International Student Assessment. Accessed November 5, 2015.

[3] National Center for Education Statistics. Programme for International Student Assessment. Accessed November 5, 2015.

[4] National Center for Education Statistics. Programme for International Student Assessment. Accessed November 5, 2015.

[5] OECD. "PISA 2012 Results in Focus: What 15-year-olds know and what they can do with what they know. 2014." Accessed November 5, 2015.