Teaching Profession

High-Level Science Exams in 5 Nations Studied

By Meg Sommerfeld — March 27, 1996 3 min read
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Since 1983, the state has increased the percentage of students taking AP exams from 3 percent to 11 percent, and the percentage of schools offering AP classes has increased from 37 percent to 70 percent.

Compared with their peers in other major industrialized nations, proportionately fewer American students take and pass rigorous, high-level physics and chemistry exams at the end of secondary school, according to a study of science-examination systems in five countries.

From one-fourth to more than a third of young adults take and pass high-level exams in those subjects in other industrialized countries, says the report, which was released here last week by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Center for Improving Science Education.

In the United States last year, only 5 percent of all 18-year-olds took and passed one or more of the College Board’s Advanced Placement exams. The exams are not a required part of AP courses.

But in Germany and in England and Wales, about 25 percent of students in that age group pass comparable exams given in specific subject areas.

In France, about 32 percent of students take and pass the baccalaureat.

And in Japan, 36 percent take and pass individual university-entrance exams.

Measuring Achievement

In those other countries, students taking high-level exams must take a minimum of three subject-area exams, though not necessarily in physics and chemistry.

In those nations, advanced subject-area exams are required for college entrance, while in the United States, AP exams are optional, and most students take only one or two.

Although many American students take the Scholastic Assessment Test, which is sponsored by the College Board, or the American College Testing program’s exam, those tests are not directly connected to the high school curriculum and are not a good barometer of academic achievement or of the content matter students study in school, the report says.

Even if students don’t take either exam, there are still many colleges that will admit them.

“Since they are not required for graduation or college admissions, students have little incentive to take--and work hard at--such demanding courses,” the report says.

Changing the System

Student achievement likely would improve if the United States had its own system of exams that were tied to what students study in school and that had serious consequences for students’ college and job prospects, Albert Shanker, the president of the 875,000-member AFT, argued at a news conference held here to release the report.

“We aren’t saying kids are awful,” Mr. Shanker said. “We are saying we have vastly different systems that produce vastly different results.”

He added, “We are a country unprepared at this moment to do this, but getting [voluntary national] standards in place would be an important first step.”

Suggested Actions

The report is the third in an AFT series called “Defining World-Class Standards.” Earlier reports focused on similar exams in biology and on exams taken by students in other nations at the end of 9th and 10th grades. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995, and May 25, 1994.)

The new report describes the exam systems of the United States, England and Wales, France, Germany, and Japan, and includes sample copies of recent chemistry and physics exams from each country, translated into English, along with an answer key.

The section on the United States includes a recent AP chemistry exam and a physics exam.

At the State Level

The report suggests a number of actions states can take to increase the number of students taking the AP tests.

States now vary widely in offering AP courses and in encouraging students to take them. Only 51 percent of schools across the country offer such courses, according to the report.

It points, for example, to South Carolina, which passed a law in 1984 requiring all schools in the state to make AP classes available.

If a South Carolina school did not offer a particular AP course, it could send the student to another school, use distance learning, or offer an independent-study option.

The state also allocated funds for teacher training and for textbooks and other materials.

Since 1983, the state has increased the percentage of students taking AP exams from 3 percent to 11 percent, and the percentage of schools offering AP classes has increased from 37 percent to 70 percent.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1996 edition of Education Week as High-Level Science Exams in 5 Nations Studied


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