U.S. Students Fall Short in Math and Science

By Sean Cavanagh — December 04, 2007 6 min read
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Teenagers in a majority of industrialized nations taking part in a leading international exam showed greater scientific understanding than students in the United States—and they far surpassed their American peers in mathematics, in results that seem likely to add to recent consternation over U.S. students’ core academic skills.

New results from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released today, show U.S. students ranking lower, on average, than their peers in 16 other countries in science, out of 30 developed nations taking part in the exam.

The test measures the performance of 15-year-old students, regardless of grade level, examining the skills they pick up both in the classroom and outside school, as well as their ability to apply that knowledge to a variety of situations.

In science—the main subject tested on the 2006 PISA—American students scored an average of 489, below the international average among industrialized nations of 500, on a scale of 1 to 1,000. Finland, which has shone in worldwide comparisons in recent years, notched the top science score of 563, followed by Canada, Japan, and New Zealand.

While the United States’ science score on PISA lagged statistically behind more than half the developed nations’, it ranked in the same statistical category as eight other industrialized countries, including Poland, Denmark, France, and Iceland. The United States outperformed such nations as Italy, Greece, and Mexico.

In 2003, the last time PISA measured performance in science, U.S. students tallied an average of 491, 9 points lower than the average of 500 in industrialized countries.

In math, which was tested in less depth on this PISA, American teenagers fared even worse, producing an average score of 474, 24 points below the international average of 498 among the 30 participating industrialized countries. Finland also landed on top in math.

The top-scoring American students’ averages were statistically worse than those for 23 of those nations, and equal to only those of Spain and Portugal. Just four countries—Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico scored lower than the United States.

As in science, U.S. teenagers’ math performance was roughly the same as in 2003, the last time PISA was administered. The United States was 17 points behind the average score for industrialized nations then, meaning the score gap has since widened slightly.

Twenty-seven nonindustrialized nations also took part in the 2006 PISA. U.S. scores in both math and science ranked below those of several countries considered nonindustrialized, including Estonia and Slovenia.

Science Understanding Questioned

Unlike some national and international tests, which examine knowledge and skills that students are supposed to have picked up in school, PISA takes into account learning that may occur outside formal academic settings.

The test measures science literacy, as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, which oversees PISA. That literacy on PISA is defined as the ability to think scientifically and identify questions, gain new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena, and draw evidence-based conclusions about issues in science.

When compared with their peers from other developed nations, U.S. students scored best—meaning only 7 points lower than the international average—on questions that asked them to identify scientific issues. They were at their worst—scoring 14 points below the international norm—in “explaining phenomena scientifically,” which testing officials defined as interpreting science and predicting changes, and identifying the correct descriptions, explanations, and predictions.

Many American elected officials and policymakers in recent years have repeatedly voiced worries that the United States will gradually lose its international economic edge if students’ math and science skills do not improve, given the flourishing school systems and growing economies in a number of other countries. Business and technology leaders have argued that more U.S. students need to be encouraged to acquire, and be provided with, the necessary academic skills to enter math- and science-related professions.

Senta Raizen, who helped direct a recent revision of the science version of the National Assessment of Educational Progess, a federally sponsored testing program, said those concerns would likely echo once again with the latest PISA results. But Ms. Raizen said an equally important concern—particularly given the broad science skills PISA measures—was that U.S. students lack a strong grasp of the overall nature of science, and by extension, an understanding of its role in society.

The scores call into question American students’ “support for the enterprise of science—their understanding of the importance of the field,” Ms. Raizen said.

“It’s not just about having more people go into those fields,” Ms. Raizen said. “Can kids apply the science knowledge to problems that confront them as citizens?”

Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., said recent test results have carried the same message: Science is not being emphasized strongly enough in U.S. classrooms, and teachers need more resources and skills to deliver sound lessons to students.

“Why are we surprised?” Mr. Wheeler said of the scores. “It’s a sad state to be in.”

The NSTA official said he was encouraged by the urgent tone adopted by members of Congress and business leaders recently in talking about U.S. students’ science and math shortcomings. But there is far too much apathy among members of the public at large—especially parents—who can stir a passion for science among students of all ages, he said, citing recent polls.

“The policymakers do get it,” Mr. Wheeler said. The challenge, he said, is presenting the issue so that “the public gets it.”

In addition to its science and math scores, the United States was supposed to receive PISA scores in reading. But the reading results were invalidated by printing errors in the testing booklets given to U.S. students, which both American and OECD officials determined would have skewed the results. Officials at the National Center for Education Statistics, while taking partial responsibility for the mishap, said it was the primary duty of the contractor, RTI International, of North Carolina, to make sure the reading exams were printed correctly. (“Printing Errors Invalidate U.S. Reading Scores on PISA,” Nov. 28, 2007.)

A Washington-based advocacy organization, the Alliance for Excellent Education, called last month for U.S. officials to readminister the reading test. But NCES Commissioner Mark S. Schneider, in a conference call with reporters this week, said that option was not feasible, considering the length of time it takes to arrange and give a PISA test.

PISA groups student test results in six categories, or proficiency levels. The United States had larger shares of students in the lowest-scoring category in science, at 8 percent, and the second-lowest group, at 17 percent, than the average for the 30 participating industrialized countries, at 5 percent and 14 percent.

Among high-achieving students, 10 percent of American 15-year-olds scored in the top two proficiency levels in science, roughly the same as the average for the other developed nations. Some nations, however, produced a far greater proportion of teenagers in the two highest categories, such as Finland, which had 21 percent reach those heights.

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