AMERICAN students have a long way to go if they are going to be "first in the world in science and mathematics achievement" by the year 2000, as called for in President Bush's fourth national education goal.
A 20-nation study released this week says that although the top 10 percent of students in the United States can compete with the top students from other countries, 90 percent of US students scored below international averages in both math and science.
The Second International Assessment of Educational Progress was jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education.
"While it is important to not turn such surveys into horse races and to be careful when comparing countries where the testing samples differ significantly, we can still see that American students are far behind their counterparts," says Gregory Anrig, president of Educational Testing Service, which administered the tests.
The US ranked close to the bottom in nearly every category of the study.
The survey involved nine-year-old and 13-year-old students from such countries as Korea, Hungary, Switzerland, Taiwan, Israel, and the former Soviet Union. Some key US trade competitors, such as Japan and Germany, declined to participate in the study.
In the mathematics category, 13-year-old students in only one country - Jordan - scored lower than the US. In science, 13-year-olds in Ireland and Jordan scored lower than US students. Korea, Taiwan, and Switzerland led the pack in both categories.
Nine-year-old American students performed better in science, averaging the third highest percentage of correct answers behind Korea and Taiwan. But the fourth-graders fell to the bottom of the list in mathematics; only those in Slovenia are lower.
Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who attended the Washington press conference, said, "The worst thing we could do is not pay attention to this news."
But critics charge that such international comparison studies are imprecise and invalid. Cultural differences and the fact that each nation determines its own guidelines for participation make it difficult to do exact comparisons.
The fundamental flaw, opponents argue, is that the entire United States student population is being compared with a select or elite group in foreign countries.
In China, for example, there are 18.5 million 13-year-olds, but only half of them attend school.
Archie Lapointe, project leader for the study, says that "some of the criticisms are valid" and that the researchers took them into consideration.
Proponents of these studies say the comparisons provide a useful bench mark to help countries set educational standards.
"There's only one real reason [to conduct these studies] and that is to find out what 13-year-old human beings can do in math and science," Mr. Lapointe says. "That's important for every country that's setting standards."
The criticism did cause researchers to provide more explicit explanations of the data. "We described the samples very accurately," Lapointe says.
Despite the criticism of these comparisons, researchers are already planning for a similar study in 1994.