Science What the Research Says

Coursetaking Drives Global Math, Science Scores for Top Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 14, 2020 1 min read

American physicists and mathematicians helped develop the foundations of quantum theory and built the first atomic bomb, but even among advanced U.S. students, 1 in 3 never get exposed to core concepts in electricity, magnetism, or nuclear physics by their final year of high school.

That’s one conclusion of a new analysis of the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Advanced, which measures the achievement of 12th grade students in the United States and other countries who had participated in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and other rigorous mathematics and physics classes. Only 12.5 percent of all U.S. 12th graders participated in the TIMSS Advanced for math, and little more than 5 percent took the physics test; the National Center for Education Statistics found they scored below the international average in both subjects, 15 scale points lower in math and and 63 scale points in physics. On average, boys outperformed girls and white students outperformed black and Hispanic students on both tests.

NCES also found wide variation in the topics covered by students’ math and physics courses. Physics teachers overall said that their classes covered only 66 percent of the concepts in test questions on electricity and magnetism, and 62 percent of questions on atomic science or wave phenomena. By contrast, classes covered 87 percent of TIMSS’ questions on mechanics and thermodynamics. Students who took the highest-level AP Calculus BC and AP Physics C courses encountered more of those concepts. They outperformed the international averages by 56 scale points in math and 37 points in physics.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Coursetaking Drives Global Math, Science Scores for Top Students

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