Scores on Science Test Causing Concern in U.S.

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

U.S. students are doing no better on an international science exam than they were in the mid-1990s, a performance plateau that leaves educators and policymakers worried about how schools are preparing students to compete in an increasingly global economy.

Results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released yesterday, show how fourth- and eighth-graders in the United States measure up to peers around the world. U.S. students showed gains in math in both grades. But average science performance, although still stronger than in many countries, has stagnated since 1995.

Students in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong outperformed U.S. fourth-graders in science. The U.S. students had an average score of 539 on a 1,000-point scale, higher than their peers in 25 countries.

In eighth grade, Singapore topped the list, with an average score of 567. Students in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, England, Hungary and Russia were among those earning higher marks than their U.S. counterparts. The average score in the United States was 520.

"We need to pay attention to the results. We're just static, and other countries are improving," said Francis Eberle, executive director of the Arlington County-based National Science Teachers Association. "Whether it's global warming, energy production or conservation or homeland security, people need to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen."

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to make math and science education a national priority. He said the federal government would work with states to improve science education, beginning in preschool, and he plans to establish a teaching scholarship program to recruit graduates with backgrounds in math and science.

The TIMSS tests, administered every four years since 1995, were taken last year by a sampling of students in the United States and more than 50 other countries. In the United States, more than 20,000 students in nearly 500 public and private schools participated.

U.S. students made notable strides in math. Since 1995, the average score among fourth-graders has jumped 11 points, to 529. But students in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Russia and England were among those with a higher average. Hong Kong topped the list with an average score of 607.

Eighth-graders also had a higher average score than in 1995 and bested counterparts in 37 countries. But they lagged behind peers in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, among other places.

Some educators and officials attribute the gains to a renewed focus on math education in recent years. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to administer annual math tests, with the goal of steadily improving performance. In 2006, President Bush appointed a panel to recommend ways to ensure that students are prepared for algebra.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the scores "reconfirm what we have long known: If we set high expectations, our children will rise to the challenge." She added that "flat science scores . . . remind us that we can't afford to be complacent."

The benefits of tough standards and a focus on foundational skills were reflected in test score gains in Minnesota, according to William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who worked with Minnesota education officials.

In 1995, before the state implemented math standards based on international benchmarks, Minnesota fourth-graders trailed peers across the country. But in the 2007 TIMSS testing, Minnesota outpaced the nation and trailed only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. "It says, 'America you can do it, and the way to do it is to have coherent, focused and rigorous standards,' " Schmidt said.

The scores led to renewed calls to bolster science and math in the nation's schools by increasing the ranks of well-prepared teachers and providing other support.

"While it's good news that fourth-graders have made significant gains in math, it's troubling that our students are still behind their international peers in both math and science -- fields that are key to our country's economic vitality and competitiveness," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "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."

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