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Posted at 09:37 AM ET, 07/02/2012

Why U.S. can’t get back to head of the class (because it was never there)

This was writtetn by David E. Drew, who holds the Joseph B. Platt chair at the Claremont Graduate University. His most recent book is “STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. He can be reached at david.drew@cgu.edu.

By David E. Drew

Policy makers and politicians like to talk about “restoring America’s leadership” in education. Our high school students rank low when tested in math and science compared with their counterparts in other countries, but, they say, we can move our students back into the top ranks with effective reforms.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan frequently gives speech about restoring America’s leadership in education. Not to be outdone, the subtitle of the Romney education policy statement is “Mitt Romney’s plan for restoring the promise of American education.”

The slogan of the ExxonMobil National Math and Science Initiative is “Let’s get back to the head of the class.”

To be sure, effective educational reforms can significantly improve the academic performance of American students. But the idea that the United States once was a world leader in elementary and secondary education, while a compelling part of our belief system, is false. We never ranked #1. We can’t get back to the head of the class because we never were the head of the class.

In fact, we always have scored at, or near, the bottom of the rankings.

There are, in fact, other misconceptions about math and science education, but this false belief is the most pervasive and deserves close examination.

America has always been, and remains, a world leader in higher education. That means comments about “restoring” America’s leadership must refer to K-12 schools.

Fragmented evidence suggests that American schools demanded much more of their students in the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century. Examine, for example, these historic New York State Regents exams in mathematics. But we have no systematic comparative data about what other countries were requiring in those earlier eras.

The only rigorous data comparing national educational achievement were collected and reported after World War II, i.e., after digital computers became available to process and analyze the data.

America is an extraordinary country. I am optimistic about the potential of American students and American schools. But we should begin by facing reality squarely, not by living in a dream world about a mythical past.

I recently tracked down every international assessment of math and science achievement since these massive comparative projects began decades ago. Some of the early data were found in the stacks of our university library, since they have not, to my knowledge, been digitalized.

Twentieth Century Assessments of Math and Science Achievement

Let’s examine math and science testing of high school students. American elementary and middle school students have sometimes placed better on these assessments. But high school performance is much more closely related to college and career achievement.

In 1965, the Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted a study of mathematical achievement in 12 countries. Students were asked to solve 70 problems. Among math students, the top scoring countries were Israel (a mean score of 36.4 correct items), England (35.2), Belgium (34.6), and France (33.4). U.S. students placed last, with a mean score of 13.8.

The IEA conducted an international assessment of mathematics during the 1981-82 school year. Twelfth-grade students were assessed on six topics: number systems, sets and relations, algebra, geometry, elementary functions and calculus, and probability and statistics. Hong Kong students scored best, Japan was second, and the United States ranked last among advanced industrial countries.

However, U.S. calculus students scored about average; note, though, fewer students were studying calculus in the US in the early 80s than in other nations. The authors commented that, “at the 12th grade level, the U.S. curriculum is much more like that of early years of secondary school elsewhere, while the curriculum of most other countries is more like that of beginning college level.” In other words, our expectations for U.S. students were too low.

In 1989, a dozen countries and Canadian provinces participated in a mathematics assessment conducted by the Educational Testing Service. Korea, French Quebec, and British Columbia were the top three. The United States ranked last.

An international study in the 1990s tested 13 year olds in mathematics in 15 countries. The United States placed next to last, above Jordan.

Here are the results of science assessments of high school students: In 1973, the U.S. rank was 14 out of 14 countries. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. rank in biology was 13 out of 13 countries; the U.S. rank in chemistry was 11 out of 13 countries; the U.S. rank in physics was 9 out of 13 countries. In 1991, the U.S. rank in science was 13 out of 15.

At no time was the performance of U.S. students excellent or outstanding on these exams.

In contrast with the conventional wisdom that the U.S performance has declined in recent decades, our performance has actually improved slightly. The hard work of teachers, students, and parents has started to pay off.

Criticisms and Limitations of These Assessments

Three main criticisms have been leveled at these tests.

1. The United States has a higher poverty rate than most industrialized countries, and students in poverty tend to achieve less than their more affluent counterparts.

2. The tests tend to favor countries with a uniform, centralized curriculum, and the United States has a decentralized system.

3. Some question whether our nation could have become a world leader in technology and innovation if our schools really were weak.

It is unlikely that, if the United States were suddenly to adopt a uniform curriculum, we would then vault to the top ranks. The major explanation for our national technological leadership focuses on the aforementioned world-class colleges and universities. These institutions provide a superb undergraduate and graduate education and conduct innovative research.

Poverty does significantly affect student achievement and the impact of poverty deserves a closer look.

Schools with High Poverty Rates

Some argue that if you remove the test scores of students in poverty from America’s performance, our test scores are among the best in the world. Then, they say, you are comparing apples with apples, since we have a much higher poverty rate than most other countries.

Poverty rates in this country are disturbingly high, among the highest in the developed world. Children cannot learn when they are afraid to walk to school, when they are hungry all day, when they are in ugly, deteriorating school buildings, when they never encounter a gifted teacher. While there are extraordinary exceptions, the weakest teachers tend to be assigned to the highest poverty schools. Poverty is a major factor impeding school achievement in this country.

But discarding U.S. scores from high-poverty schools before making international comparisons is a flawed analysis design.

Some analysts have dropped the bottom 20% of American scores and then compared our students with all students in other nations. This is an unfair comparison that stacks the deck in favor of American students. In fact, this is comparing apples with bananas.

Last fall, the San Francisco 49ers had a record of 13 wins and 3 losses. If we drop the bottom 20% of their games (approximately 3 games), we could argue that they were the best team in the NFL. They would be unbeaten!

The appropriate educational comparison — apples with apples — would be to drop the bottom 20% from each nation. If this were done, I suspect the American ranking would improve somewhat, but we would not be at or near the top. This was the result when scores for the top 5% in each country were compared in an early international study.

America is an exceptional, vibrant, creative nation, the greatest democracy ever to grace this planet. We don’t need to create fantasies about our educational history.

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