Andres Oppenheimer

Latin America, U.S. do lousy in student math tests

In this Feb. 5, 2016 photo, teacher Graciela Lage helps students during an English lesson at the Cuban School of Foreign Languages in Havana, Cuba.
In this Feb. 5, 2016 photo, teacher Graciela Lage helps students during an English lesson at the Cuban School of Foreign Languages in Havana, Cuba. AP

The results of the new international PISA tests of 15-year-old students should be ringing alarm bells throughout Latin America: they show that 63 percent of Latin American students lack basic skills in math, and in some countries that figure is as high as 91 percent.

The figures are a strong reminder that education should become the No. 1 issue in Latin America’s political agenda. In an innovation-driven global economy in which math, science and engineering are keys to countries’ prosperity, the region’s poor academic performance is one of the biggest obstacles for economic progress.

The standardized test run by the OECD, a club of wealthy nations, was taken by more than half a million students in 70 countries and major cities. It is considered the world’s most important measure of countries’ education levels, and measures student skills in science, math, and reading comprehension.

The world’s top PISA test performer in math this year was Singapore, followed by Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Japan. The United States ranked in an embarrassing 40th place in math, although it did much better in science (25) and reading (24.)

Most Latin American countries with the exceptions of the City of Buenos Aires in Argentina (42) and Chile (48) ranked at the bottom in math, including Mexico (56), Colombia (61), Peru (62), Brazil (65) and the Dominican Republic (70). Seventy percent of students in Brazil and 91 percent in the Dominican Republic lack basic skills in math, the study says.

What’s even worse, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Panama didn’t even have the courage to participate in the test, casting serious doubts about their educational standards. Cuba, in particular, claims to have a great education system, but its failure to participate in the PISA test raises serious questions about the island’s education statistics.

Argentina was not ranked as a country because former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government did not comply with PISA testing standards.

I’m not surprised that Asian countries outperformed everybody else. One of the things that impressed me the most in Singapore, China and other Asian countries I visited is their national obsession with education, and the fact that there is a family culture of striving for academic excellence.

In Singapore and Beijing, I visited after-school private institutes that teach math, science and English, and I was amazed to see them packed with students until late into the night. It was 9 p.m., and one could see teenage students sitting at their desks in the same school uniforms with which they had left home at 6:30 a.m.

What’s more, their parents and grandparents were sitting in the back of the classroom, killing time reading magazines while they waited for the class to be over to take their children home. When I interviewed these children and their parents, it became obvious that a sizable part of these and other Asian countries’ populations have a family culture of education: parents and grandparents invest much of their time and money in the education of their children.

The main ambition of many parents I met in Asia was for their children to get top grades, and be able to go to college in the United States or Britain.

Not surprisingly, more than 31 percent of the more than 1 million foreign students in U.S. colleges are from China, compared with 1.9 percent from Brazil and 1.6 percent from Mexico. Even tiny Vietnam and Taiwan have more students in U.S. colleges than Brazil and Mexico, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.

My opinion: It’s time for Latin America to make quality education — not just quantity education — a top priority.

And it’s something that should not be left up to the governments. Business people, media owners, and academics should — among other things — create big prizes for top students and launch massive campaigns to create a family culture of obsession with quality education, like non-government groups such as Brazil’s Todos pela Educacao and Mexico’s Mexicanos Primero are already doing.

The PISA tests should be a wakeup call for Latin America, and for the United States as well. Unless we improve our students’ academic level, we will fall farther behind.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español