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U.S. Falls Short in 4-Nation Study of Math Tests

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Inconsistency in expectations, curriculum, and assessments, as well as generally low academic standards throughout the nation, are preventing U.S. schoolchildren from achieving in mathematics at the levels of their counterparts in other countries, concludes a report released last week.

Those nations that lead in international comparisons of students' math achievement tend to have rigorous national standards that outline clear expectations and are measured by high-stakes examinations, the report says.

The report, "What Students Abroad Are Expected to Know About Mathematics," takes a comparative look at math exams that students in France, Germany, Japan, and the United States take as they prepare to enter high school and college.

The American Federation of Teachers and the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education conducted the study. It is the fourth volume in the AFT's Defining World Class Standards series. Earlier reports focused on exams in physics and chemistry, and biology, and on tests taken by students in other nations at the end of 9th and 10th grades. ("A.F.T. Decries Lack of Standards, 'Gateway' Exam," July 12, 1995; and "High-Level Science Exams in 5 Nations Studied," March 27, 1996.)

"We hope this report will paint a graphic and clear picture, not one that simply ranks the United States with other countries, but that shows what the expectations are for students in mathematics in other countries," said the AFT's Matthew Gandal, the author of the report. "It is now time for states and for districts to look at the expectations that these countries have for their students and make sure our expectations measure up."

Demanding Little

The United States did not measure up to the most competitive nations in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study released last fall, the most extensive international comparison study of math and science achievement among 7th and 8th graders in 41 nations. Students from France and Japan outperformed those from Germany and the United States, both of which scored slightly below the international average on the TIMSS math test.

The United States is the only one of the four nations in the AFT study that allows students to undertake academic studies in high school and college without demonstrating high-level math skills.

To make the comparison, the AFT study looked at the breadth and depth of questions on so-called gateway exams, administered just prior to high school and to qualify for college. Because no comparable test is taken by a majority of American 8th graders, the researchers evaluated the National Assessment of Educational Progress instead, even though only a representative sample of the nation's 8th graders take that.

Those results show that American middle school students have difficulty with geometry and measurement and are not proficient in solving complex problems.

"The trouble is that the standardized tests being used [in 8th or 9th grade] demand as little of [students] as our curriculum--mostly arithmetic, little algebra, and just about no geometry," Senta Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, said in releasing the report in Washington. "This hardly challenges them for the more advanced work students in other countries get in high school."

In looking at college-entrance exams, the report found that the math questions on the SAT I: Reasoning Test and the ACT, required of most college-bound students in the United States, are far less demanding than comparable exams in the other featured countries. Only Advanced Placement exams matched the difficulty of those taken by a majority of students in the other nations.

The report commends efforts by President Clinton to promote the creation of voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math to help boost the academic expectations and achievement of American students.

"We are hoping that this report will help in the development of the national test that the president is working on so that we really do have benchmarks that are [linked] to world-class standards," AFT President Sandra Feldman said in an interview.

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