- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

Eighth-graders in the United States continue to lag behind many of their counterparts in math and science performance, particularly those in Asia, despite efforts in the past several years to improve in subjects that are crucial to competing in the global marketplace.

While U.S. eighth-grade students exceeded the international average on tests in both subjects, they still fell well below students from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as students in Australia and Canada, according to a study released yesterday that is a follow-up to the widely reported Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) of 1995, which compared academic performance around the world.

William H. Schmidt, national research coordinator for the 1995 TIMSS study, said the 1999 report found "no widespread, substantive change" over the past four years.

"I certainly think these are disappointing results," said Mr. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University.

"This really does say something about our children's chances for securing good jobs," he said. "The world's economy is now truly international," and if U.S. students are not prepared to fill demanding high-tech jobs, corporations will look to other nations for qualified workers.

Added Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, in reacting to the report: "Our stock has dropped faster than some dot-coms."

Thirty-eight nations participated in the 1999 assessment, dubbed the TIMSS-R the "r" standing for repeat. Out of those, the United States did better than 17 nations in math and 18 nations in science, but fell below 14 countries overall.

Researchers from the Department of Education, however, cautioned that comparing results from the two studies is difficult, because some of the nations that participated in the 1995 study dropped out in 1999, while other new nations joined in.

While the TIMSS covered students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, the latest report looked at student achievement only in the eighth grade. The middle school years, said researchers, are crucial times when students' math and science performance often begins to wane.

Over the four-year period between the two studies, there was no statistically significant change in eighth-grade mathematics or science achievement in the United States, said the report, released by the department's National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. eighth-graders in 1999, however, tested better than the eighth-graders who took the test four years ago.

The math and science performance of U.S. students, relative to those in the 17 other nations that participated in the TIMSS study, "was lower for eighth graders in 1999 than it was for fourth-graders four years earlier," the TIMSS-R study found.

One bright spot emerged from the nation's dismal progress: Average math scores for the nation's black students rose 25 points, which the department cited as significant.

Around the world, girls and boys posted similar scores in math, but boys continue to outpace girls in science, the study found.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley touted the latest results as generally "positive," but said that much work lies ahead.

"American students continue to learn, but their peers in some other nations have been learning at a faster rate," Mr. Riley said.

Bill Goodling, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House education committee, called the latest TIMSS results "a disturbing trend."

"These test results are indicative that for too many years, we placed a priority on process," Mr. Goodling said.

The TIMSS-R set the average score for all nations at 500. Math scores ranged from a high of 604 in Singapore to a low of 275 in South Africa, the report said. Science scores ranged from 569 in Taiwan to 243 in South Africa. U.S. students scored 502 in math and 515 in science.

U.S. students exceeded the average in three of five math subjects and were at the international average in two others, Mr. Riley said. The test areas were: fractions and number sense; measurement; data representation, analysis and probability; geometry; and algebra.

Students were tested in six science content areas: earth science, life science, physics, chemistry, environment and scientific inquiry. U.S. eighth-graders exceeded the world average in five of those six subjects, Mr. Riley said.

He defended education reform efforts and lauded the hard work of teachers and school administrators.

"America is trying to teach more to more students and more different kinds of students than ever before," he said, calling on the lame duck Congress to pass Mr. Clinton's education budget.

He also called on the nation to make serious investments in math and science teaching as suggested in a report by the Glenn Commission, released earlier this fall.

Michigan State's Mr. Schmidt said U.S. educators must make rapid changes in the way math and science are taught in middle schools if they want to see significant progress on a global scale.

"We have not taken seriously the message of change that needs to take place in our middle school curriculum," he said.

"In 1995, we found out middle school students in other countries study geometry, algebra, chemistry and physics," he added. "In this country, we're still teaching elementary arithmetic and elementary science."

Rita R. Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, said the TIMSS-R puts the focus on the need to improve teacher quality. She said the nation's educators can learn plenty from other countries in this area, citing findings from both the 1995 and the 1999 studies that U.S. eighth-grade math and science teachers are less likely to have majors or minors in their teaching fields than their counterparts abroad.

She added, "We know kids can't learn what their teachers don't deeply understand."

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