U.S. eighth-grade students are improving in science and math compared with international peers, but the nation’s fourth-graders have stagnant scores and are slipping behind in both subjects, according to a study of achievement across the globe released Tuesday.
The 2003 international results show some promise for the United States, including a shrinking achievement gap between black and white students, a federal priority.
Yet several countries, particularly in Asia, continue to outperform the United States in science and math, fields at the heart of research, innovation and economic competitiveness.
An academic benchmark
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which covers content taught in schools in all participating countries, is an academic benchmark in the primary and middle grades. Forty-five countries took part at eighth grade, 25 countries at fourth grade.
Just one week ago, results from a separate international test showed U.S. 15-year-olds don’t match up well with peers in math, an apparent conflict with Tuesday’s news about U.S. eighth-graders, who typically are 13 or 14 years old. The earlier test focused on real-world application of math, not grade-level curriculum, and it involved different nations.
The new study compares the United States with other rich, industrialized countries as well as many poorer nations. The United States scored above the international average in each category.
Nationally representative samples of students took the TIMSS test last year. Among major findings for the U.S. students:
- Eighth-graders improved their scores in science and math since 1995, when the test first was given. While the science progress has come largely since the last test, in 1999, the math rise came mainly between 1995 and 1999 and not in the recent years. The rising scores of eighth-graders also gave the United States a higher ranking relative to other countries.
- Fourth-graders did not improve or decline in science or math since 1995 and as a result slipped in the international rankings as other countries made gains.
- In both grades and both subjects, black students closed their test-score gap with whites. Hispanic students also closed the learning gap with whites in eighth-grade science.
The trends left ample room for interpretation.
Asian countries are setting the pace in advanced science and math, said Ina Mullis, co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College, which manages the study.
As one example, 44 percent of eighth-graders in Singapore scored at the most advanced level in math, as did 38 percent in Taiwan. Only 7 percent in the United States did.
“We have to keep at it, and maybe even step up the pace,” Mullis said. “Even though a lot of people are working very hard on reforms, we don’t seem to reap commensurate benefits.”
Business and academic leaders say such scores warn that students aren’t getting prepared for a global economy, a point Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan often makes.
“The lack of improvement at the elementary level does not surprise us,” said Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “We’ve been hearing from many elementary teachers that they are not teaching science because of the increased emphasis on literacy. Science is essentially being squeezed out of the elementary classroom.”
At the Education Department, Russ Whitehurst, who directs the Institute of Education Sciences, said the U.S. students fared quite well in the international comparison.
Official stresses special challenges
For example, he said, only three countries — Taiwan, Japan and Singapore — outperformed the U.S. fourth-graders in both science and math. The United States faces challenges that the top Asian countries do not, he said, such as curriculum that varies widely across the states and students who come to school from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“That we’re so close to the top is a testament to what we’re doing,” he said.
Jack Jennings, director of the independent Center on Education Policy, put the flat performance by U.S. fourth-graders in a positive light: their scores haven’t dropped since 1995 while scores in some nations have. It would have been better, he said, had the scores been released with those from other recent tests to give them all more context.
TIMSS is run by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition of research institutions. The group is separate from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which released its own test results last week.