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American Students Lag Their International Counterparts in Math and Science

By Elaine Cassel

President George W. Bush promised the voters that he would improve education in the United States. Judging from results of a recent study, much needs to be done to bring the science and math skills American students up to the level of their counterparts in less wealthy, less technologically advanced countries

Results of tests taken by 180,000 eighth-graders in 38 nations in 1999, as reported in the Third International Math and Science Study, showed that the 9,000 American students tested performed worse in math and science than students in Russia, Hungary, Singapore, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Australia.

Especially troubling is the fact that this was a follow-up to a study conducted in 1995 in which American fourth-graders were found to be on the leading edge in science scores and at the international average in math. In retesting the students, American educators hoped to find that these fourth-graders continued to do as well as eighth-graders, a fact clearly not borne out by the results.

Why the regression in standing? Experts point to the following:
  • 71 percent of foreign students learn math from teachers who majored in mathematics in college, compared to only 41 percent of American students. Middle school teachers in the United States tend to have general education, rather than specialty, degrees.
  • American middle school math and science teachers are committed to teaching, but need help in developing competence in their subject areas.
  • Teachers in nations whose students scored high in math and science spend more time on professional development and refining curriculums and have time during the school day for development and class preparation.
  • Nations with higher rankings in the sciences teach chemistry and physics in the lower grades, giving students more time to absorb the concepts. By the time international students get to eighth grade, they have had more challenging math and science than American students.
Disappointed education analysts in the U.S. recommend broadening the math and science curriculum in the middle schools, increasing time devoted to those subjects, and improving the content knowledge and teaching skills of math and science teachers.

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