U.S. Seniors Near Bottom in World Test

By Debra Viadero — March 04, 1998 6 min read
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Researchers may not yet know why American high school seniors ranked near the bottom in the latest international study of math and science achievement. But they do know that some of the past excuses used to explain Americans’ poor performances no longer hold up.

Federal education officials made no attempt to sugarcoat the results issued here last week from the 41-nation Third International Mathematics and Science Study, described as the largest, broadest, and toughest study of student achievement ever completed. In both math and science, American high school seniors--even the best and brightest among them--scored well below the average for their peers in other countries. Of the 21 nations that took part in that portion of the assessment, only three countries--Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa--did worse.

Put in terms of report card grades, the American seniors earned a D-minus or an F in math and science, said William H. Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the U.S. national research coordinator for the study.

“These essentially are just devastating results,” he said. “There’s no other way to cast them.”

The news contrasted sharply with the results issued last June for 9- and 10-year-olds. American 4th graders pulled an A in science and a respectable B-minus or C-plus in math on the test, in Mr. Schmidt’s assessment at the time. Thirteen-year-olds, in comparison, fared slightly worse, scoring at the international average in math and below average in science--a showing that researchers said portended the bad news for 12th graders. (“4th Graders Do Well in Math, Science Study,” and “Fourth Grade Performance and Expectations,” June 18, 1997.)

The high school results especially are disappointing because none of the Asian nations that usually top such assessments participated.

Debunking Myths

Leading experts said the study also debunked the myth that America’s best students hold their own against those of other nations.

“Some of our science and math folks have been unwilling to believe the results, and they’ve been saying for years that our best kids are the best in the world. Well, they’re not,” said Senta Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, based here.

In advanced mathematics, 11 countries outperformed the United States, and four countries scored about the same. In physics, 14 nations topped American high school seniors, and one other country had similar scores. No country scored lower than the United States in either subject.

Critics of such international “horse races” have also contended that American students suffer by comparison because other countries educate smaller proportions of their populations, or because only elite students take the tests elsewhere. But study researchers said that, in all 21 nations, 90 percent or more of teenagers were enrolled in school. And all kinds of students--including those in the vocational schools to which many countries direct noncollege-bound students--took the tests.

“Also, contrary to myths about U.S. education, our poor performance is not because our student body is more diverse or because we have a lot of low scores pulling down the U.S. average,” added Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Department of Education. He said the top- and bottom-scoring students in all the countries studied were separated by a similar-sized spread of 300 points.

The study also discredited the idea that American students watch more television than students in other nations. It found that students in all the countries studied watch an average of 1.7 hours of TV or videos a day.

American students do spend slightly less time on homework than students in other countries do, and much more time working at after-school jobs. But so do students in some of the countries that scored higher on the assessment, such as Canada and Australia.

Effect of Curriculum

One factor possibly linked to high-performing countries, however, was age. Students in many Scandinavian countries, for example, start school around age 6 or 7 and graduate at 19 or 20. High-performing countries, the study found, tended to have older students taking the test. Many of those students, however, may have been in school just as long as test-takers in this country. Some may live in countries that require more or fewer years of schooling.

But the biggest reason for Americans’ poor performance, researchers and policymakers said, may have to do with curricula.

“The fact is, if you go out and look at the curricula we’re teaching kids in middle school and high school, you’ll find it wanting,” said Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences.

In middle school, for example, when most American students are still doing arithmetic, students elsewhere are beginning algebra and geometry.

And in high school, many American students are not required--or prepared--to take four years of math and science. Only 1 percent of American high school seniors, for example, take Advanced Placement calculus.

To draw a large enough sample of U.S. students to take the advanced-mathematics and physics exams for timss, Ms. Raizen said, researchers had to recruit precalculus and analytic-geometry students, too. One-fourth of the questions on the advanced-math exam involved calculus.

When their results were analyzed separately, the very small percentages of students who took physics and calculus either came closer to the international average or exceeded it. They did not represent the world’s best, however.

Teachers Unprepared

In pointing to reasons for the poor U.S. results, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley also noted that 28 percent of high school math teachers and 55 percent of physics teachers in this country had neither majors nor minors in their subjects.

“It’s time we overhaul the recruitment, preparation, and ongoing professional development of our science and math teachers,” he said at a press conference here where the U.S. study was released.

He also criticized the politically charged battles now being waged over the content of the math curriculum. Opponents of newer approaches that stress instruction in reasoning skills and more-complex mathematics contend educators should put more emphasis on basic computation skills.

“We need less ideology and more geometry,” Mr. Riley said.

Some educators argued last week that use of the newer methods might explain why 4th graders did so much better on the international tests than the middle schoolers and high schoolers did.

Gail Burrill, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which in 1989 published the national standards in that subject that have been at the center of much of the debate, noted that high school textbooks reflecting the standards are just now becoming available, while similar texts for elementary schools have been on the market a few years.

“Math is cumulative,” she said. “Even though you may start to do a different strategy with a 9th grader, that student’s already had eight years of schooling beforehand.”

To test whether U.S. 4th graders will keep their edge, Mr. Forgione of the NCES said the United States is spearheading efforts to do a follow-up study of 8th graders around the world next year.

‘First in the World’

TIMSS is the 15th cross-national study conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a research cooperative based in the Netherlands. The international report, published separately from the U.S. analysis, was released last week in Boston.

Boys outperformed girls in almost every country. But the United States was one of only three nations in which male students’ edge in math was negligible.

And both critics and defenders of the TIMSS project pointed to the success of a consortium of 20 suburban Chicago districts that independently took the tests. Twelfth graders in “The First in the World Consortium,” as the group is known, scored first in the world.

“My sense is that if the First in the World Consortium stacks up well, then there are an awful lot of other kids that do, too, and that weren’t tested,” said Gerald W. Bracey, a researcher and a critic of the national emphasis placed on such studies.


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