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Column One: Research

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A number of studies over the past decade have shown that U.S. students lag far behind their Asian peers in mathematics achievement. But a newly published study, which compared student performance in 1990 with that in 1980, shows that Americans failed to close the gap during that period.

And, it found, despite a decade of school-reform rhetoric, Americans in 1990 were no less satisfied than they were 10 years earlier about their children's performance.

The study by Harold W. Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and his colleagues, was based on tests and questionnaires administered to nearly 500 11th graders in Minneapolis; Sendai, Japan; and Taipei, Taiwan, and who had participated in a 1980 study by the researchers. In addition, the authors tested a sample of 4,000 11th graders and 240 5th graders in each city.

They found that, among 5th graders, Japanese pupils consistently outperformed Americans in math, and the gap between Chinese and Americans grew between 1980 and 1990. They also found that, in 1990, the Japanese scored highest in reading ability and the Americans scored lowest.

Among 11th graders, it found, the achievement gap increased between grades 1 and 11.

The study, published in the Jan. 1, 1993, edition of Science, also found that American parents in 1990 continued to be as satisfied as they were a decade earlier about their children's performance and the quality of their children's schools.

"We conclude that the achievement gap is real, that it is persistent, and that it is unlikely to diminish until, among other things, there are marked changes in the attitudes and beliefs of American parents and students about education,'' the authors state.

Despite such findings, however, the state of American student performance continues to be controversial.

In the Winter 1992 edition of "Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice,'' Gerald W. Bracey, an Alexandria, Va.-based education analyst, offers additional ammunition to support his hotly debated contention that U.S. students' achievement is no worse--and in many ways, better--than it has ever been.

But, in a rejoinder, Daniel M. Koretz, a resident scholar at the RAND Institute on Education and Training, holds that, while Mr. Bracey rightly points out some of the flaws in the arguments of the critics of American schools, he also overstates his case.

The truth, Mr. Koretz writes, "is somewhere between the views put forward by Bracey and his critics.''--R.R.

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