U.S. pupils turn in mixed
performance against peers
Dec. 14, 2004
WASHINGTON - U.S. eighth-graders
are gaining on their peers across the globe in science and math, but
fourth-graders are being passed as their test scores remain stagnant, according
to an international review of school performance.
The 2003 test results released Tuesday offer some hope and relief to the United
States, coming just a week after its 15-year-olds did poorly in math in another
The achievement gap between black and white children is shrinking, the new
scores show, a central goal of the government's education policies under
Yet several countries, particularly in Asia, continue to outperform the United
States in science and math, fields at the heart of research, innovation and
Given this country's recent emphasis on achievement in the early grades, the
flat performance by fourth-graders drew concern, and some playing down, from
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, is a test
of curriculum taught in all participating countries, from chemistry and physics
to geometry and algebra. It is a respected benchmark of a country's performance
in primary and middle grades.
"It's really the only way we have to determine how the United States as a nation
is doing in preparing its children and its students in math and science," said
Russ Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the
Federal officials also suggested Tuesday that a better measure of U.S.
achievement would be how students do on the test known as the National
Assessment of Educational Progress. On that U.S. test, more closely aligned to
standards and content taught in schools here, fourth-graders and eighth-graders
made sizable gains at every level in math in 2003.
In the new study, the United States is compared with other industrialized
countries and many poorer ones. Given that range, the United States was above
average across the board.
Forty-five countries took part at eighth grade and 25 countries at fourth grade
when representative samples of students took the test. 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. While the science progress has come largely since the last
test, in 1999, the math rise came mainly between 1995 and 1999 and not in 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, they slipped in the international rankings as other countries made
-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
Donald Thompson, an education leader at the National Science Foundation, said
schools have made noticeable gains in eighth-grade algebra since the last
version of the test. "When concentrated attention is brought to bear on the
nation's education problems, our school systems have the capacity to take action
and to get extremely positive results," he said.
Business and academic leaders have been clamoring for such attention on science
and math so that students will be ready for college and careers demanding
"Every caring parent in America knows that reading to a young child promotes
literacy. But how many parents know the fundamental building blocks of math?"
said Joseph Tucci, education task force chairman at the Business Roundtable, an
association of chief executives.
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," Mullis said. "Even
though a lot of people are working very hard on reforms, we don't seem to reap
Education Department leaders framed the results a bit differently, saying that
U.S. children are holding their ground in fourth grade and making gains in
Just a week ago, results from the Program for International Student Assessment
showed U.S. 15-year-olds are below average when it comes to applying math skills
to real-life tasks.
Yet U.S. eighth-graders, typically 13 or 14 years old, did well on TIMSS, which
covers grade-level curriculum instead of daily applications. TIMSS is run by the
International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition
of research institutions.
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