U.S. Scores Only Slightly Below Average In Nine-Nation Pilot Test of Geography

By Debra Viadero — August 05, 1992 3 min read

U.S. students, often ranked at the bottom on international assessments of geographical knowledge, scored only slightly below average on a small-scale geography test of 13-year-olds in nine nations.

The 24-question test, the results of which were released last week, was conducted by the Educational Testing Service as part of its 1991 Second International Assessment of Educational Progress. The assessment, the results of which were released in February, measured students’ skills in science and mathematics in 20 countries. Nine of those countries also opted to have their students take the pilot geography test.

On the geography test, American 13-year-olds answered an average of 61.9 percent of the questions correctly, the researchers said. Students in Hungary, Slovenia, Canada, and the now-defunct Soviet Union, on average, answered more questions correctly. And students in Spain, Korea, Ireland, and Scotland scored lower on average than American students.

Only 11.5 percentage points, however, separated the average scores of the highest-performing nation--Hungary--and the lowest-scoring, Scotland.

No Sweeping Conclusions

The results “showed our students do know how to interpret maps, and they did have some understanding of cultural geography,’' said Archie Lapointe, the director of the center for the assessment of educational programs at the E.T.S. The test was “encouraging,’' he said.

But Mr. Lapointe cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions about what students know about geography from the study, which was conducted only to determine whether a valid international geography test could be undertaken in the future. He said a more thorough performance assessment would have three times as many questions.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • In all populations except the Soviet Union, boys performed significantly higher than girls.

  • Students’ proximity to the geographic regions depicted or described in individual test questions was not clearly related to their ability to answer those questions correctly.

  • Within the countries studied, students who said they had large numbers of books at home or read frequently tended to score higher than those who did not. There were no consistent relationships between high scores and some other variables, such as the amount of time spent on homework.

Math and Science Test

The E.T.S. last week also released a report on an optional hands-on science and math test that was conducted as part of the I.E.A.P.

The study measured the abilities of some 3,000 13-year-olds in each subject in five countries--Canada, England, Scotland, the Soviet Union, and Taiwan--to complete a series of tasks that required them to apply concepts, observe, measure, manipulate equipment and materials, and record and interpret data.

The study concluded that such assessment techniques “can be used reliably in international comparative studies, although at an estimated cost three to four times greater than for an equivalent number of written test questions.’'

The performance assessment, it found, taps knowledge and skills not measured by conventional tests, and students and teachers were generally enthusiastic about the approach. In some cases, the report notes, “students regarded as low attainers achieved more than expected.’'

However, the report also points out that some problems arose with equipment and materials used in the assessment. As a result, some results had to be discarded or re-analyzed.

Officials from the United States had elected not to participate amid concerns that performance assessment was too experimental to be used in a high-profile international study. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

Copies of the reports can be obtained from the Center for the Assessment of Educational Progress, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541-0001. The geography study, “Learning About the World,’' costs $12. The math and science study, “Performance Assessment: An International Experiment,’' costs $10.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as U.S. Scores Only Slightly Below Average In Nine-Nation Pilot Test of Geography