US students improve in math
But science scores are stagnant in an international study of fourth- and eighth-graders.
US education may not stack up quite so poorly against other countries as critics sometimes claim.Skip to next paragraph
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American fourth- and eighth-graders have made strides in math, according to the latest results from a major international survey, while science scores continue to stagnate – results that mirror other recent national data.
"The message for the country is that we're improving in mathematics, particularly at the 10th percentile," or the lowest-performing students, says Patrick Gonzales, US coordinator at the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) at the Department of Education. "In science, there are more mixed results."
TIMSS, which in 2007 tested and compared fourth-graders from 36 countries and eighth-graders from 48 countries (largely in Europe and Asia), is a common international benchmark for science and math achievement. It last tested students in 2003.
In the latest report, released Tuesday, US eighth-graders ranked lower in math than students in five countries, which are all in Asia, and ahead of those in 37 countries. (US scores were not statistically different from those in the remaining five countries.) The average math scores for both fourth-graders and eighth-graders have risen since 1995, the first year the test was administered.
Most of those gains, however, took place among the lowest-performing students, a similar trend to that seen in national report cards on education. That could be a result, analysts say, of the increased focus on bringing up America's struggling students without as much attention to those at the top.
"We could probably expect more out of high-achieving kids and get greater progress, but we don't give them a whole lot of emphasis in terms of boosting performance today," says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Still, Mr. Loveless says, the common perception of US students being so far behind their international counterparts is "a myth" and is not borne out by TIMSS data.
He also cautions against taking too many policy prescriptions from such tests. "They're like a thermometer," he says. "They tell you what your temperature is, but not necessarily why it is what it is."
At Foster Elementary School in Hingham, Mass., math specialist Blake Doyle assists in the professional development of teachers in grades K-5. She looks at what lessons can be gleaned from national and international reports and has even spent some time in Japan, one of the countries outpacing the United States. "They have a very collaborative approach with their teachers," she says.