Despite notable progress in mathematics, the United States has failed to raise student achievement in science over the past decade while Singapore and several other Asian countries continue to score higher in both subjects, according to a study released this week that compares math and science test scores of students from dozens of countries.
America's uneven performance in the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) immediately drew responses from policymakers and educators who are worried about how well the United States is preparing students for a global economy. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, linked the nation's current economic troubles with the need to retool the U.S. education system. "It's increasingly clear that building a world-class education system that provides students with a strong foundation in math and science must be part of any meaningful long-term economic recovery strategy," he said in a statement. (U.S. News explores this debate in an article that accompanies the 2009 America's Best High Schools rankings.)
TIMSS is the largest international assessment of student achievement and is conducted every four years. Scores come from math and science tests that were given to some 25,000 randomly selected fourth and eighth graders in more than four dozen countries last year. The scores are on a 1,000-point scale.
In math, the study shows that the United States has made improvement, especially at the eighth-grade level. Between 1995 and 2007, the average fourth-grade score jumped 11 points, to 529, while the average eighth-grade score increased 16 points, to 508. But American scores remain well behind those of Asian countries. Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan posted eighth-grade math scores ranging from 570 to 598. Hong Kong fourth graders came in first place with an average score of 607.
In science, the results suggest that the United States is not doing enough to train the next generation of scientists. Fourth graders had an average score of 539, a slight improvement from four years ago but still lower than the average score of 542 in 1995. Eighth graders have improved from a decade ago, but their average score of 520 was down seven points from 2003. Students in Singapore and Taiwan were the top performers. Their eighth-grade scores were at least 40 points higher than those of American eighth graders. One bright spot was the performance of Massachusetts in the fourth-grade science exam. Massachusetts came just behind Singapore and ahead of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, says the focus on math and reading in U.S. classrooms might explain the country's low science scores. "The lesson is that what gets tested gets taught," he says. "Under the No Child Left Behind Act, and state accountability systems before that, elementary schools have been held accountable for boosting performance in math and reading. There is evidence that American elementary schools are spending less time teaching science, and this is showing up in the international testing data," Petrilli says.
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings expressed disappointment about the science scores but said the accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind Act have been good for education. "I am encouraged that U.S. students are improving, and particularly that many children who were once left behind are now making some of the greatest gains in math," she said in a statement. "But flat science scores and increasing international competition remind us that we can't afford to be complacent."
Since the last TIMSS report in 2003, schools have adopted several reforms intended to boost achievement. A growing number of them, for example, are switching to Singapore textbooks. But such changes have yet to produce results. President-elect Barack Obama said during the campaign that he would make math and science education a priority. Before his administration considers ordering more Singapore textbooks, he might want to encourage the hiring of teachers who are better prepared in math and science, most experts say.