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U.S. Pupils Earn Familiar Low Scores On International Math, Science Tests

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Washington--American 13-year-olds performed at or near the bottom on a new six-nation international mathematics and science assessment, according to a federally funded study released here last week.

Only 40 percent of the U.S. students tested could perform two-step math problems, the study showed, while 78 percent of South Korean pupils--the leaders in the assessment--demonstrated such skills.

In science, 70 percent of the Koreans showed proficiency in using scientific procedures and analyzing data, but fewer than 40 percent of the Americans could perform at that level.

The test results give further evidence, said Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, that the state of American students' knowledge in math and science represents a "national tragedy."

"How many times must this nation be reminded of its educational deficit?" he asked in a statement. "It must be apparent to everyone that our students are entering high school without a solid foundation in two critical areas."

At a press conference here, Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, assistant director of the National Science Foundation, said: "I'm willing to accept the idea that we can't always be first in everything, although we ought to try. But I can't stand the thought of being last, or close to last, in something as vital as an understanding of science or something as vital as what is coming to be called 'numeracy."'

The study, conducted by the Educational Testing Service with funding from the Education Department and the nsf, was based on a test administered last February to 24,000 13-year-olds in Ireland, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

Because Canada has no nationally administered student assess4ment, test results were reported separately for the provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec. In the last three provinces, both French- and English-speaking populations were assessed.

Test items were drawn from the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress, making the study the first multi-national comparison to employ naep's system of evaluating performance according to levels of proficiency.

The results corroborate findings released over the past two years from two multi-national assessments conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and from two naep tests.

The ets report also follows a strongly worded new report by the National Academy of Sciences that advocated a thorough overhaul of math curricula at all levels of education. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1989.)

The U.S. sample included about 1,000 students from 200 schools, and was a representative cross section of the 3 million 13-year-olds nationwide.

Their performance on the math assessment was the poorest recorded, and on the science assessment narrowly surpassed only that of test takers from Ireland and the French-speaking portions of Ontario and New Brunswick.

But though overall performance was low among the American students, the study found that virtually all had mastered basic skills. And, contrary to the findings of prior studies, there was little discrepancy between boys' and girls' performance.

The findings also revealed, however, that 13-year-olds in the United States display behaviors that correlate with poor performance in the subjects. For example, compared with their counterparts from other countries, Americans tend, according to the study, to have lower regard for math and science and to watch more television.

Results of the math assessment showed that, although virtually all students in all countries were able to perform simple addition and subtraction, and most could use basic operations to solve simple problems, the proportions of pupils who could perform more complex problems varied widely.

Among Korean 13-year-olds, it found, 40 percent understood more advanced concepts of measurement and geometry, and 5 percent could interpret data from a complex table to solve problems. By contrast, only 9 percent of the Americans demonstrated an understanding of the advanced concepts, and 1 percent could interpret the data.

But despite their poor performance, about two-thirds of Americans said they were "good at mathematics," while only 23 percent of Koreans--the best performers--made the same claim.

In analyzing classroom practices and home support, which may cause differences in performance, the study found that teacher lectures and seat-work characterize instruction in most countries.

"Except in Spain," the report states, "less than one-quarter of the students report working in small groups on a regular basis, a technique thought to improve performance and strongly recommended by many mathematics educators."

Moreover, it found, relatively few students reported spending much time on math homework.

As with the math assessment, the science test found that nearly all students in the six countries were familiar with basic facts, but that the Koreans--along with British Columbians--outpaced Americans on more complex tasks.

In contrast to the math assessment, though, the science results showed a considerable gender gap in performance. With the notable exception of the United States and the United Kingdom, males significantly outperformed females on all items. The largest gap was in the top-performing country, Korea, where boys outscored girls by nearly 40 points on the 1,000-point scale.

Student and teacher questionnaires also revealed significant differences in classroom and home practices. Students in the United Kingdom, who performed third-best overall, were most likely to participate in experiments, while those in English-speaking New Brunswick and the United States were least likely to be involved in such activities.

In addition, the study found a positive relationship between home involvement, such as watching sci4ence television programs and discussing class activities, and school performance.

It found little relationship, however, between performance and the amount of daily homework. Top students, the report suggested, may do their homework more efficiently than poorer students, and those who need additional help "are more likely to get regular attention at home."

Copies of the report on the assessment, "A World of Differences," are available for $10 each, plus $1.50 for shipping and handling, from the Center for the Assessment of Educational Progress, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541-0001.

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