U.S. students playing catch-up in financial literacy

When did you first develop an interest in money and business? It appears, for many kids, that interest starts in mid-adolescence when they are old enough to manage their own bank accounts, access an ATM, start part-time work and start to think about their long-term financial futures.

That's why the results of a new international study of 15-year-old boys and girls is so interesting.

Data from the 2012 study, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), were released this week -- and it found the United States in the middle of the global pack, when it comes to kids and financial literacy.

The study, known as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), measures a 15-year-old student's abilities at reading, mathematics, and science literacy. It also looks at the so-called functional skills -- abilities such as problem-solving, that students are expected to acquire if not master towards the end of their compulsory schooling years.

The PISA study was administered to about 29,000 students in 18 countries -- a group representing about 40 percent of the world's GDP. And in terms of overall financial literacy, here were the results:

  1. Shanghai-China
  2. Flemish Community (Belgium)
  3. Estonia
  4. Australia
  5. New Zealand
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Poland
  8. Latvia
  9. United States
  10. Russian Federation
  11. France
  12. Slovenia
  13. Spain
  14. Croatia
  15. Israel
  16. Slovak Republic
  17. Italy
  18. Colombia

There have seem some questions about treating the Chinese city of Shanghai as its own region, in relation to the study. In a blog posting last year, for the Brookings Institution's Brown Center for Education Policy, Tom Loveless warned the media shouldn't look at Shanghai's education scores as representing China's overall national education performance.

"Shanghai has an economically and culturally elite population with systems in place," he said at the time, "to make sure that students who may perform poorly are not allowed into public schools."

And some of the study's results, meanwhile, were not as cut-and-dried as you might think.

The PISA study pointed out that students in some countries, such as Australia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, the Flemish Community of Belgium and New Zealand, scored higher in overall financial literacy than their reading and mathematics scores would otherwise predict.

"Although financial literacy skills are positively correlated with mathematics and reading skills," as the study's executive summary noted, "high performance in one of those core subjects does not necessarily signal proficiency in financial literacy."

The study also found that, compared to adult populations, the gender gap in financial literacy among 15-year-old students was relatively insignificant.

But a big factor appeared to be the student's attitude about learning.

It noticed that, on average across OECD countries and economies, "the difference in financial literacy performance between students who agreed with the statement 'like to solve complex problems' and students who disagreed is equal to 31 score points, or almost half a proficiency level."

U.S. educators, meanwhile, are looking at the new PISA data with concern. "While we're standing still, other countries are making progress," Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which issued the U.S. report on PISA, told Education Week.

There were some bright spots for the United States. According to Education Week, the report released separate results for public school students in three states -- Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts -- and it found students in Massachusetts performing above average in all subjects, when looking at leading industrialized nations.

Mitchell Chester, the education commissioner for Massachusetts, told the website the new PISA report "helped reinforce that our students are performing among some of the better-performing nations in the world, and it also made clear to me that we shouldn't be complacent."

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