US students improve in math

But science scores are stagnant in an international study of fourth- and eighth-graders.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics/Rich Clabaugh/ Staff

US education may not stack up quite so poorly against other countries as critics sometimes claim.

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.

At Foster, the teachers do have collaborative planning time, but not to the same degree as their Japanese colleagues. "[In Japan], they also spend time looking at concepts in depth, analyzing one or two as opposed to trying to cover lots of content," Ms. Doyle says. A number of reports on math education in the US have criticized curricula for being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Minnesota is perhaps the best example of what can happen when a state narrows the number of topics taught at a given grade level to allow teachers to concentrate on fundamental concepts. Since 1995, its fourth-graders made gains three times the size of the overall US gains in math. The state's eighth-graders outperformed their US peers as well. Minnesota is now "on the edge of world-class performance," says William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied international math curriculum. "Everybody always wants to know, is it possible we could ever perform like those top-achieving countries? And I think the answer is, yes we can," Professor Schmidt says.

Achievement shortcomings among lower-income students are one concern that international comparisons also bear out. US schools where the majority qualify for free or reduced-price lunches score below international averages in fourth- and eighth-grade math, says Jim Rubillo, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "In my view, this should set a national priority: We should make sure schools with the least ability to provide resources are staffed with teachers [who can] give them an equal opportunity to succeed in our global economy," he says. Generally, high-poverty schools have higher turnover and fewer experienced teachers.

While the overall news in math is good, science results in the most recent TIMSS are less encouraging. Since 1995, the scores for both fourth- and eighth-graders have remained statistically unchanged. The lowest performers among US eighth-graders have made small improvements, while the top performers have declined.

The US still performs better in science than the average among TIMSS countries, but the lack of progress underscores what some educators and others say is a pressing need to give more attention to science education in this country, in addition to the emphasis on reading and math.

In spite of numerous reports, "many districts simply do not value science education," reads a statement released Tuesday by the National Science Teachers Association in Virginia. "Science is being eliminated from many K-6 classrooms," it says. "We should not accept these TIMSS scores as the status quo, but instead focus on how we can forge a stronger public commitment from parents, the business community, policymakers, and other stakeholders on the importance of quality science education."

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