- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Eighth-graders in the United States are improving in science and math compared with their international peers, but the nation’s fourth-graders have stagnant scores and are slipping behind in both subjects, according to a study of achievement across the globe.

The 2003 international results, released yesterday, show some promise for the United States, including a shrinking achievement gap between black and white students, a federal priority.

Yet several countries, particularly in Asia, continue to outperform the United States in science and math, fields at the heart of research, innovation and economic competitiveness.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which covers content taught in schools in all participating countries, is an academic benchmark in the primary and middle grades. Eighth-grade students in 45 countries participated in the study, and fourth-grade students in 25 countries took part.

One week ago, results from a separate international test showed that U.S. 15-year-olds don’t match up well with peers in math, an apparent conflict with yesterday’s report about U.S. eighth-graders, who typically are 13 or 14. The earlier test focused on real-world application of math, not grade-level curriculum, and it involved different nations.

The new study compares the United States with other rich, industrialized countries, as well as many poorer nations. The United States scored higher than the international average in each category.

Students from across the nation took the TIMSS test last year. Among major findings for the U.S. students:

• Eighth-graders improved their scores in science and math since 1995, when the test first was given. The science progress has come largely since the last test, in 1999, and the math rise came mainly between 1995 and 1999 and not in the recent years. The rising scores of eighth-graders also gave the United States a higher ranking relative to other countries.

• Fourth-graders did not improve or decline in science or math since 1995 and as a result slipped in the international rankings as other countries made gains.

• In both grades and both subjects, black students closed their test-score gap with whites. Hispanic students also closed the learning gap with whites in eighth-grade science.

The trends left ample room for interpretation.

Asian countries are setting the pace in advanced science and math, said Ina Mullis, co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College, which manages the study.

As one example, 44 percent of eighth-graders in Singapore scored at the most advanced level in math, as did 38 percent in Taiwan. Only 7 percent in the United States did.

“We have to keep at it, and maybe even step up the pace,” Miss Mullis said. “Even though a lot of people are working very hard on reforms, we don’t seem to reap commensurate benefits.”

Business and academic leaders say such scores warn that students aren’t getting prepared for a global economy, which is a point that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan often makes.

“The lack of improvement at the elementary level does not surprise us,” said Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “We’ve been hearing from many elementary teachers that they are not teaching science because of the increased emphasis on literacy. Science is essentially being squeezed out of the elementary classroom.”

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