The nation’s 4th graders may not stack up quite so well against their peers around the globe as previously thought, but also may not post as big a drop-off in achievement when they get to high school, a new analysis of international-test comparisons concludes.
The study, conducted by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Urban Institute, looked at two international-assessment comparisons, covering grades 4 and 8 and 15-year-olds. It found that, when compared only with those countries that participate in both studies for all three student groups, the United States ranked in the middle or bottom of each.
“There has been a broad perception that the United States does reasonably well in 4th grade mathematics internationally, about average in 8th grade, and then [its performance] falls off a cliff in high school. But that is based upon a comparison of apples and oranges,” said Steve Leinwand, the AIR’s lead author of the report.
The report, “Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance: New Findings from the 2003 TIMSS and PISA,” is available from the American Institutes for Research.
Until now, comparisons have been made among all the countries participating in each of the studies. The United States has scored above the international average on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, for 4th and 8th graders, but at the bottom among industrialized countries on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests math literacy and problem-solving.
Twenty-four countries participated in the 4th grade TIMSS, and 40 were involved in the 8th grade comparison. Those lists don’t necessarily match up closely with the nations involved in the PISA exam either, Mr. Leinwand said.
The new study compares the United States with 11 other developed countries that participated in all three student groups: Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the Russian Federation.
“What’s most important is that there is a fairly consistent pattern of mediocrity” among U.S. students, Mr. Leinwand said.
The latest ranking puts the United States eighth on the grade 4 comparison and ninth for both groups of older students. Students in seven other countries performed statistically better than American 4th graders, five outscored U.S. 8th graders, and six were better than this nation’s high school students.
Computational Skills Questioned
The AIR study also challenges the common notion that American students do well on basic computational skills. The nations in the study that did well on the easy questions also tended to do well on the more difficult ones. But the United States was below average in those areas as well.
The United States, for example, was below average on both low- and high-difficulty test items, and the performance of American students at all three grade levels was particularly weak on measurement questions and geometry skills. The students, however, showed strong abilities in data and statistics.
To improve the nation’s standing internationally, American schools need to focus more intently on building students’ foundational math skills in the early grades, the report recommends, and beef up instruction in geometry for middle school students. U.S. schools should also consider ways to narrow the lingering achievement gap between boys and girls, a trend evident in only one other country, Italy.
Although the new rankings suggest greater problems with U.S. math proficiency than had been reported previously, the performance of American students is still about average internationally, according to Gerald W. Bracey, an Alexandria, Va.-based researcher. Mr. Bracey also suggested that the substance of the PISA test—which includes broad questions gauging students’ analytical, quantitative, and analogical skills—may not yield adequate information about high school math achievement.
“What I object most to is the use of the word ‘mediocre.’ ‘Average’ is a statistic; ‘mediocre’ is a judgment,” said Mr. Bracey, who has challenged the notion that American students perform poorly on international comparisons. “When they run the final heat in the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, the guys who finish fourth or fifth are called average. Nobody is going to call them mediocre. How well you do depends on how stiff the competition is.”