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Foreigners Outpace American Students in Science

By Robert Rothman — April 29, 1987 6 min read

WASHINGTON--The science achievement of U.S. students has improved little over the past two decades, and still lags far behind that of students in other countries, new data released here last week reveal.

The data, preliminary results from the Second International Science Study, found that, despite a slight gain in 1983, American students’ performance in 1986 was at or below the level attained in 1970, when the first international study was conducted.

In addition, the study found, students in England, Japan, and six other unnamed countries outperformed the top American students, who were taking advanced courses in physics, chemistry, and biology.

“We really thought that advanced science students would do about the same as the British and the Japanese, and they did not,’' said Willard J. Jacobson, a professor of science education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the national research coordinator for the study. “That is disappointing.’'

Moreover, Mr. Jacobson said, American students taking their second year in a high-school science course performed only slightly better than students in their first year.

The preliminary findings, released at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, analyzed data from the second phase of the international study, conducted in 1986, which examined science achievement among students in grades 5, 9, and 12 in about two dozen countries.

More than 300 U.S. schools participated in the study, which tested 2,584 students in grade 5; 2,248 in grade 9; and 6,331 in grade 12.

The first phase of the study, conducted in 1983 and 1984, surveyed students in grades 5 and 9, as well as 12th-grade students studying physics and 12th-grade students studying no science. Results from that study showed that U.S. student performance had improved since 1970. (See Education Week, June 6, 1984.)

The second phase was intended to survey students not tested in the first phase, including 12th-grade students in biology, chemistry, and advanced classes in those subjects and in physics. The study also tested students in grades 5 and 9 in “process’’ skills, which required students to perform tasks and explain their observations.

To compare students with those tested in earlier assessments, researchers in 1986 administered to 5th- and 9th-grade students the core test given in 1983.

The new study found that performance had actually fallen since 1983--to, at most, the same levels found in the 1970 assessment.

“At grade 5, our conclusions are that the results can be interpreted as ‘no change to slight growth,’'' according to Rodney L. Doran, a professor of science education at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the assistant national research coordinator of the study.

“At grade 9,’' Mr. Doran said, “our conclusion is that from 1970 to the 1980’s, the performance is described as ‘no change to slight decline.’''

However, he also noted that students in grade 9, who were given a set of questions identical to those given students in grade 5, performed substantially better than the younger students.

“At least they are not going backward,’' Mr. Doran said. “Something is occurring. As kids are maturing and growing, they are learning science.’'

International Comparison

The study also found that U.S. students studying biology, chemistry, and physics for a second year performed at substantially lower levels than students from other participating countries.

These few students--less than 10 percent of all 12th graders--represent the most advanced students in the United States, Mr. Doran said. “These are the end product of the U.S. school science program, yet they aren’t faring real well in comparisons,’' he said.

In physics, for example, U.S. second-year students answered 44 percent of 26 items correctly, while Japanese students correctly answered 59 percent, and British students answered 58 percent. A composite score from nine countries, including the United States, Japan, and England, was 51 percent, the study found.

American first-year physics students answered 34 percent of the items correctly.

U.S. students in second-year biology classes performed nearly as well as Japanese students, answering 44 percent of 13 items correctly, compared with 48 percent by the Japanese. However, British students answered 71 percent correctly, and the international average was 62 percent.

The performance of U.S. students not taking science was closer to the international average, yet still trailed that of other countries. Non-science students in the United States answered 48 percent of 30 items correctly, compared with a nine-country average of 56 percent. Non-science students in England correctly answered 60 percent of the items, and Japanese students scored 58 percent.

Gender Differences

In the second study, as in the first, boys consistently outperformed girls, Mr. Doran reported. At grades 5 and 9, and among 12th graders not taking science, boys performed between 5 percent and 7 percent higher than girls, while in 12th-grade physics classes, boys performed about 11 percent higher than girls, he said.

The differences were larger than those found in Japanese classrooms, according to Mr. Jacobson. While he was reluctant to attribute a cause to the discrepancy, he suggested that cultural differences might explain it.

“Boys in our culture have more hands-on experience than girls do,’' he said.

For example, he noted, the greatest difference between boys’ scores and girls’ scores was on a question involving the reflection of light off a mirror. Boys could relate that question to throwing a ball or playing pool, he said.

However, the data show that, contrary to researchers’ assumptions, the gender differences narrowed considerably on the process questions, which involve hands-on manipulation, according to Mr. Doran.

“On these manipulative, laboratory-type, practical items, the gender effect is almost non-existent,’' he said. “Our expectation was that girls would do poorly on these tasks. Happily, our data present contrary findings. Further study is needed to verify this conclusion.’'

Reforms Needed

The new data suggest that policy reforms are urgently needed, according to Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

“We’re not doing very well, that’s a fact,’' he said in an interview. “But if we don’t go in and produce qualified teachers, build laboratories, and raise teacher salaries, we won’t improve.’'

“Look at other countries and see what they are doing in that regard,’' he said.

The researchers will analyze the data to determine the factors that could have influenced the U.S. students’ performance, according to Mr. Doran. Findings are expected to be completed by the end of next year, he said.

A similar study released in January, which examined the results of the Second International Mathematics Study, attributed the poor performance of U.S. students to the curriculum, which it said “is helping to create a nation of [math] underachievers.’' (See Education Week, Jan. 21, 1987.)

In science, the curriculum is a less-likely culprit, Mr. Doran said. “In math, there is clear tracking here,’' he said. “There is not so much in science.’'

Reports from other countries suggest other possible explanations.

In Israel, for example, the results indicate that students’ interest in science and motivation to succeed are major factors in achievement, according to Pinchas Tamir, a professor of education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Teachers can do wonders if they put more attention to ways to raise interest and motivation,’' he said. “It has such a powerful effect on achievement.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1987 edition of Education Week as Foreigners Outpace American Students in Science