Science

Top of the World, in Science

By Sean Cavanagh — June 12, 2009 3 min read

The organization that runs the PISA test released a report recently that compares the performance of the highest-scoring students in science, by country. As with many of these international studies, the conclusions you’ll draw will depend on your beliefs and expectations—what standard should we expect from U.S. students, compared with, say, their peers in Finland or Japan? And what can these tests really tell us?

The report, titled “Top of the Class,” shows American schools meeting the average for developed nations in the percentage of 15-year-olds reaching the top two levels of performance (levels 5 and 6) in science—about 9 percent. (See Figure 1.1, and Table A1.1). Many nations top us in that category, however, particularly traditional high-performers Finland (21 percent) and Japan (15 percent), as well as New Zealand (17.6 percent), Canada (14 percent) and Germany (12 percent), among others.

The report also points out that countries’ ability to churn out top-tier science students is only “weakly related” to those nations’ average performance. In other words, some nations show large proportions of 15-year-olds reaching the highest levels on PISA and relatively few poor-performers, while other nations produce a lot of the cream of the cream, with large numbers of students lagging far behind. In addition, the authors say, the makeup of high-performers in different countries are all over the map. Some nations produce large numbers of high-performers regardless of gender, ethnic origin, language barriers or socioeconomic status. Others do not.

“It is particularly encouraging that in some education systems significant proportions of students with disadvantaged backgrounds achieve high levels of excellence, which suggests that there is no inevitable trade-off between excellence and equity in education,” the authors say.

A lot of people will no doubt be troubled by the United States’ relatively small proportion of top-performers. Others, like Gerald Bracey, have another take. In an e-mail, the education researcher notes that when you look at the raw numbers of top-performing students produced by countries, the United States dominates, producing 25 percent of the pie, mostly because of its large population. Japan is our closet competitor, at 13 percent. The Finns, by contrast, produce only about 1 percent. (See Figure 1.2) I’ve heard other researchers make the same point.

A couple other findings: Top-performers tend to spend more time on in-school lessons than out-of-school science activities. The authors note, however, that this info is difficult to interpret, because the quality and purpose of out-of-school lessons vary a lot by country, such as between South Korea and the United States.

The report also includes a lot of interesting data looking at the connection of science performance to other things—such as student motivation. It found a “strong and direct relationship between science performance and frequency of participation in student-initiated science activities.” (Pages 58-59). The report also concludes that top-performers reported a much stronger degree of enjoyment in science than those at lower levels. More than 80 percent of the top performers “reported that they enjoy acquiring new knowledge in science, are interested in learning about science, and generally have fun when learning science. However, this was the case for less than 50% of the lowest performers.”

A lot of reputable researchers urge caution in over-interpreting the PISA results, as I reported from a gathering of top U.S. ed statistics folks last week. There’s also disagreement about the connection between students’ enthusiasm for subjects like science and math, and their performance in it. And some American officials are less than thrilled with the OECD issuing what sounds like policy recommendations based on its research. Here’s a statement from the OECD’s “Top of the Class” report:

“In sum, educational excellence goes hand in hand with promoting student engagement and enjoyment of science learning both inside and outside school,” the executive summary states. “The payoff is quite significant: a large and diverse talent pool ready to take up the challenge of a career in science. In today’s global economy, it is the opportunity
to compete on innovation and technology.”

What do you make of the OECD findings about elite performers in science? And does the report provide clues on how U.S. schools better nurture this talent?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.