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Study Finds Variations in Math, Science Tests in 7 Nations

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To be admitted to a university, secondary school students in England have to pass a chemistry test that lasts nearly eight hours. But in Japan, the entrance exam in chemistry for prestigious Tokyo University lasts just 2-1/2 hours.

And, unlike the tests in either of those countries, the United States' Advanced Placement exam in chemistry asks almost no questions about organic chemistry--the specialty of almost half the field's practitioners.

Those are among the variations researchers found when they compared mathematics and science tests that college-bound students take in seven industrialized countries. The Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education will release a report on those findings this week.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a 50-nation project now in the works, attempts to compare and analyze textbooks and curricular guidelines for schools worldwide. But few studies have analyzed subject-matter tests for clues about what nations expect their best students to know when they graduate.

"A lot of us felt tests are what's really influential," said Senta A. Raizen, the director of the science-education center, which used a grant from the National Science Foundation for the project.

As part of their study, researchers pored over 5,000 questions in 77 examinations in chemistry, biology, physics, and math from England and Wales, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.

Students in most of those countries take a battery of examinations in several subjects to determine where or whether they will go on to university study. Because similar kinds of tests are not generally required here, researchers used the College Board's Advanced Placement examinations as a basis for comparison. Students take those tests to earn college credit for advanced courses in high school.

The researchers found that, despite some commonalities, the exams differed widely from country to country in format, length, topics covered, apparent difficulty of the questions, and the degree to which students were given choices in answering test items.

Lacking in Chemistry

One of the more striking findings the researchers made, however, was that the U.S. chemistry exams, alone among those of the nations studied, included few questions about biochemistry, organic chemistry, and industrial chemistry. The tests instead emphasized more foundational physical-chemistry topics.

"I really think the bottom line is that students in other countries end up spending a lot more time with chemistry than we do," said Dwaine Eubanks, a chemistry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who conducted the chemistry part of the analysis.

Also, in all of the nations studied, the science exams gave short shrift to ecology and environmental sciences--omissions researchers said could be due to lags between current thinking and practice.

All of the tests, except for those in France and Germany, included a mix of multiple-choice questions and more difficult open-ended items. However, the U.S. Advanced Placement tests, with more than half their testing time given over to multiple choice, had the largest proportion of such questions.

And, except for those in England and Wales and Israel, the exams lacked the kinds of laboratory experiences called for by science-education reformers.

"These exams are such high stakes, and they really are driving what's happening in classrooms," said Edward D. Britton, the science center's assistant director. "It's sending a signal to teachers that it's really of no consequence to them if they don't do [hands-on science] in the classroom."

Similarly, despite math-education reformers' recommendations, the math exams in all of the participating countries drew almost no connections between abstract math and real-world problem-solving.

Intent of Exams

John Dossey, the mathematics professor at Illinois State University in Normal who wrote that part of the study, points out that the U.S. math exams were the easiest of the lot.

"But this characterization matches the intent of the exam," he writes. While Japan's exams, for example, are intended to identify the most promising students, the U.S. exams are meant to ensure that students have grasped minimal concepts.

Overall, however, the researchers stopped short of characterizing any nation's test battery as easier or harder than the rest.

"You can't make that judgment when you don't know what surrounds the test," Ms. Raizen, the center's director, said.

"The French exams have fewer questions requiring lengthier responses, and it looks like they're testing more in-depth knowledge," she added. "However, we don't know whether French students know they will be tested in two of five topics or what they know about what will be on the test, or how much coaching has been going on."

Together with the American Federation of Teachers, the center will publish the complete exams later this year.

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