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U.S. Fares Poorly on Science Test

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Washington--America's top high-school science students ranked below those of nearly all other countries in a new comparison of scores from an international test released here last week.

American 12th graders studying biology scored below students from the 16 other countries included in the analysis, which examined data from a 24-nation science assessment administered in 1986.

In chemistry, the study found, students from all other countries except Canada and Finland outscored their U.S. counterparts.

And in physics, only those two countries and Sweden ranked below the United States.

The achievement levels are particularly "discouraging," the study's authors note, since the American students in the comparison were drawn from the small proportion of the nation's high-school students enrolled in advanced science courses.

"For a technologically advanced country, it would appear that a re-examination of how science is presented and studied is required," states the report on elementary- and secondary-level science achievement, prepared by an international group of researchers.

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, director of the science- and engineering-education directorate of the National Science Foundation, which contributed $1.25 million toward the cost of the study, echoed those conclusions.

The data "paint a dismal picture of science education in the United States today," Mr. Shakhashiri said.

"But American children have just as much native curiosity and capacity for learning about science as children in any other nation," he added.

"We must develop quickly the na4tional will to improve the effectiveness of science education in American schools," he said.

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said the study's findings offered an even bleaker picture of student achievement than that presented in the Education Department's latest 50-state comparison of education statistics. (See Education Week, March 2, 1988.)

"Last week, when we released our annual 'wall chart,' showing that American education progress is in a 'dead stall,"' he said in a statement, "many in the education establishment disagreed, and indeed some said we were doing just fine."

"Now comes this international report card," he continued, "showing that, compared with students in other countries, American elementary and high-school students are not just in a 'dead stall,' they're doing even worse."

"They're in reverse and going downhill," he charged.

Early Specialization

The study, "Science Achievement in 17 Countries: A Preliminary Report," is based on an assessment conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

More than 300 U.S. schools participated in the assessment, which tested 2,822 students in grade 5, 2,519 students in grade 9, and 1,729 students in grade 12.

Early findings from the test, released last year, indicated that the science achievement of U.S. students had improved little since the first such international study in 1970, and that Americans' performance lagged behind that of students from most other countries. (See Education Week, April 29, 1987.)

The new report notes that addi8tional studies will be released next year that will analyze possible causes of the differences in achievement among countries.

Willard J. Jacobson, the U.S. research coordinator for the study, said a preliminary analysis indicates that the countries that performed well tended to be those--such as England, Hong Kong, and Singapore--in which students specialize in science and mathematics at an early age.

"Those with the highest scores, with the exception of Hungary, follow the English system of very intense specialization," said Mr. Jacobson, professor of natural sciences at Columbia University's Teachers College. "We are not in the same league as those early-specializing students."

"One thing the American public will have to decide is: Do we want to do a similar thing in the United States?" he said. "That ought to be considered."

The report found that American 5th-grade students ranked 8th among the 17 nations compared, while the country's 9th graders outscored only their counterparts from Hong Kong and the Philippines.

But the average score of American 9th graders was higher than that for 5th graders, indicating an improvement over time, the authors note.

Males outperformed females in most countries and grades, the study found, although the average difference was smaller than in 1970.

However, the gender differences in the American scores were among the highest of the 17 countries, it found, and the gap grew wider at higher grade levels.

Single copies of the report can be obtained by writing the Office of Studies and Program Assessment, National Science Foundation, 1800 G Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20550, or by calling (202) 357-7425.

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