If the world's fourth-graders were gathered in a single classroom, American students would be near the front of the class.
This is one of the findings released June 10 from an international study on math and science students. In science, American students are outperformed by only one country, Korea, and rank about even with Japan. In math, American students are outperformed by students in seven countries (including Korea and Japan), but they perform better than students in 12 countries (including England and Greece) and are similar to those in six countries.
While the study, called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), helps to draw international comparisons between the world's top school systems, it also raises as many questions as it answers. Why, for instance, do Americans perform above average in fourth-grade math and science but drop below average by eighth grade?
"There's no single factor that would explain this," says Pascal Forgione, commissioner of education statistics at the US Department of Education. "There's more homework, more TV, and smaller class sizes both in the high-performing countries and in the low-performing countries. At the moment, there's no silver bullet."
One cause for America's relatively poor performance in eighth grade might be found in the curriculum, Dr. Forgione adds. In fourth grade, US students are learning roughly the same material as their counterparts overseas. In eighth grade, they are learning what students in other countries covered in seventh grade.
Educators note that the US is one of the few countries in the study that does not have nationally devised standards of what students should know and be able to do. Advocates for math and science teachers also say teachers should get more than four years of undergraduate training in their subject area and more ongoing training.
"The good news is that TIMSS gives direction to look at those areas that we have always thought were most significant, such as curriculum, textbooks, teacher training, staff development," Forgione adds.
OTHER key findings include:
* Having educational resources in the home (such as computers, 100 or more books, and a student's own study area) was strongly related to math and science achievement in every country.
* Gender differences in math achievement were small or nonexistent in most countries.
* Fourth-graders spend more time learning math than science in most countries.