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In a Global Test of Math Skills, U.S. Students Behind the Curve

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A01

American high school students have a poorer mastery of basic math concepts than their counterparts in most other leading industrialized nations, according to a major international survey released yesterday.

The PISA study, conducted every three years, ranked the United States 24th out of 29 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world's richest countries. Students from Finland and South Korea scored best in the survey, which measured the ability of 15-year-olds to solve real-life math problems.

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The results suggest that, at the secondary-school level, the learning gap between the United States and its competitors in Europe and Asia is widening. U.S. students continue to lag behind students elsewhere in basic math skills, despite recent gains in standardized tests at the national level.

"The overall message from this report is that the U.S. needs to do better," said Eugene Hickok, deputy education secretary. "We need to get young people interested in math and science at a younger age. . . . We need more qualified math teachers."

There are many theories on why U.S. students lag behind their peers abroad in math. They range from the teacher shortage to a lack of sufficiently challenging math courses to an overreliance on facile standardized tests.

Formally known as the Program for International Student Assessment, the PISA survey measures the degree to which students nearing the end of their secondary school education are prepared to meet the challenges they are likely to face in society. The survey was conducted in 2003 among a nationally representative sample of more than 5,456 students in 262 U.S. schools, and more than 250,000 students worldwide.

A previous study, released three years ago, showed that U.S. students were in the middle of the pack when it came to reading but lagged in math. Since then, the United States has fallen behind countries such as Poland, Hungary and Spain by some measures of math proficiency.

A more detailed comparison of U.S. students' performance in math with the achievements of students in 24 other countries over more than a decade will be released early next week. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, known as TIMSS, is administered once every four years. Experts expect a relatively good performance by U.S. students at the elementary school level, but a sharp drop-off in middle school and high school.

Taken together, the two surveys could accelerate a growing debate over the way math is taught in U.S. schools. Last month, the Education Department released a study that concluded that many of the commercial mathematics programs and textbooks used in grades six through nine lack a proven research base.

"It's definitely worrisome," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which lobbies on behalf of underprivileged children. "Almost all our reform energy has focused on elementary schools. High schools are the most stagnant part of our education system, followed by middle schools."

Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, cautioned that the PISA survey measures application of basic math concepts in real life rather than scholastic achievement or theoretical skills such as calculus and algebra. He also noted that the United States is a much more diverse country than most of its competitors, with a significant proportion of minorities, who traditionally score lower on standardized tests.

The survey covered countries with a wide array of education systems, from nations such as the United States that rely heavily on high-stakes testing, to Scandinavian countries such as Finland, which has rejected the whole idea of standardized testing. According to Pasi Sahlberg, a former official in the Finnish education ministry who now works at the World Bank, Finland's success on the PISA survey reflects four decades of educational reform based on the idea of a single school system for everybody.

"Every child goes to the same school, and there is no school choice," Sahlberg said. "Teachers focus 100 percent on educating and teaching children rather than preparing them for tests."

In addition to the world's wealthiest countries, 10 non-OECD countries also took part in the survey. The United States performed slightly ahead of Russia and on par with Latvia, but behind Hong Kong and Liechtenstein. Males outperformed females virtually everywhere on the math test, except in Iceland. In reading tests, females were uniformly ahead.

Tom Loveless, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the standardized tests used to measure the performance of U.S. students in math on a national level are "far too easy." He said this explains why U.S. students have registered some seemingly impressive gains on the math section of the National Assessment of Education Progress, known as "the nation's report card," while faring poorly in international comparisons.

"We have downplayed arithmetic," Loveless said. "By and large, American students don't know how to work with fractions very well and don't know how to work with decimals. This handicaps their performance internationally."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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