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Column One: Research

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Continuing a raging debate over the relative quality of Japanese and American schools, a new analysis concludes that Japanese students do, in fact, outperform Americans in mathematics.

In a 1992 article in Educational Researcher, Ian Westbury, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, argued that an international study in which Japanese students scored much higher than did Americans was misleading because the curriculum differs substantially in the two countries. Examining U.S. 8th-grade classes in which pre-algebra and algebra were taught, as they are in Japan, Mr. Westbury found achievement similar to that in Japan.

But in a new analysis of data from the Second International Math Study, David P. Baker, an associate professor of sociology at Catholic University, found that Japanese students did better than Americans, even when they had been taught the same material. Looking at teachers' estimations of whether they had taught the material needed to answer a given question on the test, Mr. Baker found that, on average, Japanese students learned more than 60 percent of what they were taught in a year, while Americans learned only 40 percent of what they were taught.

"The Japanese system imparts more knowledge to more students than the American system,'' Mr. Baker writes in the April 1993 edition of Educational Researcher.

Mr. Westbury, in a response, writes that he continues to believe that differences in curriculum, not in school effectiveness, explain the differences in 8th graders' math achievement.


Last month marked the 30th anniversary of one of the most enduring concepts in educational research: the idea of "criterion-referenced measurement.''

In a symposium at the 1963 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and in an article in the American Psychologist later that year, Robert Glaser, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, argued for a new form of testing that provided "explicit information as to what the individual can or cannot do.''

Mr. Glaser called the testing criterion-referenced, to distinguish it from the more traditional norm-referenced testing, in which student performance is gauged against that of a norm group.

The idea continues to resonate in debates over performance assessment and national standards.

"Little did I realize what would happen to the word 'standards,''' Mr. Glaser said recently.--R.R.

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