Johnny may whoop and holler about the A he got in mathematics. But when he finds out what it takes to get by in Japan, Germany, and France, he may suddenly grow quiet.
A comparison of each country's college-entrance exams offers a new way of ranking the educational systems of the United States and its economic competitors. Indeed, these tests, which serve as the stern gatekeepers of higher education, may offer the clearest look yet at how the world's industrial powers prepare their students for college.
An examination of American tests such as the SAT and the entrance exams of France, Germany, and Japan shows a huge gap in expectations, performance, and consequences.
Japanese students are expected to know higher levels of math, including calculus; American students can stick to ninth-grade algebra and geometry. French students must explain their answers in depth; Americans can guess at multiple choice. Germans who fail their exams don't go to college; Americans who do poorly on the SAT just choose to attend a less choosy school.
In a new study, "What Students Abroad Are Expected to Know About Mathematics," the American Federation of Teachers suggests that a single set of academic standards may be the reason students from the world's industrial powers are prepared to tackle tougher math tests.
"The difference is that these other countries all have ... a common curriculum, tests based on the curriculum, and incentives for students to work hard in school," says Sandra Feldman, the new AFT president. "There is no parallel in the United States, so it's no surprise that our students don't perform as well."
Study authors say the findings add weight to President Clinton's argument that the US needs higher academic standards and rigorous national tests. He links improved education performance to America's ability to power an Information Age economy.
"Other countries have national standards, and they're very demanding," says Matthew Gandal, an AFT official in Washington and author of the study. "Here in the US, we have 50 different standards, and they are pretty weak. We're hoping people in the various states will take a close look at these standards [from France, Germany, and Japan] and make sure their own measure up."
THE differences are striking between the US and the educational expectations of its competitors:
* French, German, and Japanese students are at least a year ahead of American students, studying algebra and geometry in eighth grade while Americans are lingering over rational numbers, fractions, and exponents.
* In France, Germany, and Japan, up to half of all students take rigorous nationwide college-entrance exams in math. About 41 percent of American high school seniors took the SAT last year, but the AFT study finds the math section to be only at the ninth-grade level. Only 4 percent take the Advanced Placement test, which comes closest to matching the rigor of foreign entrance exams.
* Tests in France, Germany, and Japan have clear consequences, determining whether a student will go to college. In the US, tests have few consequences, and students can usually find a college to accept them.
Raising academic expectations may be the best hope for turning around poorly performing schools, both in the suburbs and in the inner cities, advocates for standards say.
But other educators say there are no simple answers to the nation's educational problems, and standards make up only one part of the equation.
"The assumption is that if we put these systems into place, we'll have motivated students because there will be consequences," says Charles Abelman, an education professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. But not all teachers will be able to teach the material, not all schools will have the resources or the capacity to boost their curriculua, and not all students will arrive in the building ready to learn, he says.