Education Testing  Special Report
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U.S. High School Seniors
Rank Near Bottom

By Rene Sanchez

On the Web
_ Full Text of the Report


Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 1998; Page A01

American high school seniors have scored far below their peers from many other countries on a rigorous new international exam in math and science.

The test results, which were released yesterday, present a damning assessment of American students in their last year of mandatory schooling: In both subjects, their scores ranked close to last among the 21 nations that participated. And their showing was much worse than the marks that American elementary and middle school students have earned on similar international exams in the past two years.

Even the scores of academically elite American students -- those who take either physics or advanced math courses in high school -- were a disappointment. They also finished below the international average and lagged behind many other nations on the latest test.

The nation's education leaders reacted with dismay to the poor results yesterday. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley called the American scores "unacceptable" and said that too many schools are failing to establish tough academic standards for students and often lack qualified teachers in math and science even when they do.

"We need to have higher expectations for our students," Riley said. "Many of our students stop taking math and science after 10th or 11th grade."

chart  Less Time Spent on Schoolwork  Compared with their peers overseas, U.S. seniors spend more time at afterschool jobs and are less likely to take four years of math and science.
Source: Pursuing Excellence
Riley said that middle schools also may be a source of the problem. "Other nations begin to introduce challenging concepts such as algebra, geometry, probability and statistics, but we continue to focus on arithmetic, even though our students are good at arithmetic," he said. "So we shouldn't be surprised that by the 12th grade, our students have fallen even further behind our counterparts abroad."

The work of American fourth-graders is quite strong in math and science when compared to similar students in other countries, but from that point their scores decline in international tests. American eighth-graders posted mediocre marks in both subjects when their work was matched recently against counterparts around the world.

In a speech to the National Council of Jewish Women yesterday, President Clinton said the fact that fourth-graders do well while eighth- and 12th-graders struggle indicates the problem lies in instruction, not in the abilities of students, or that the United States has more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than other nations.

"The fourth-graders represent the same socioeconomic diversity" as the older students, Clinton said. "Therefore, there is something wrong with the system. . . . I do not believe these kids cannot learn. I am tired of seeing children patronized because they happen to be poor or from different cultural backgrounds than the majority. That is not true."

About 10,000 seniors selected randomly from more than 200 public and private high schools across the United States took the international exam. American high schools are often run quite differently from secondary schools abroad. Here, most schools are comprehensive and strive to teach all types of students. In other countries, however, many teenagers are instead placed into specific kinds of schools, some heavily academic, others vocational. But test officials said they accounted for the differing academic arrangements in other countries by giving the test to students from varying backgrounds and types of schools.

chart The 90-minute test assessed students' general knowledge of math and science concepts through problem-solving and multiple-choice questions.

Only 57 percent of American students, for example, chose the correct answer to this question: "Experts say that 25 percent of all serious bicycle accidents involve head injuries and that, of all head injuries, 80 percent are fatal. What percent of all serious bicycle accidents involve fatal head injuries?" The answer is 20 percent.

American students fared poorly in math and science even though they expressed more enthusiasm for learning the subjects than their peers in other nations and reported using computers and having lab experiments and practical lessons more often in class.

Also, none of the Asian nations that have finished at the top of other similar tests in math and science participated in this one. Most of the countries that excelled on the exam are in Europe, in particular the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. But Canada and New Zealand also had higher marks than the United States. American scores were comparable to those of students from Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic. American students outperformed students only in Cyprus and South Africa.

"This study is a wake-up call for us to change the culture in the classroom," said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the 53,000-member National Science Teachers Association. He added that many science teachers say they get mixed signals about what to teach and lack the time and resources to achieve more in class.

A report on the test, which was supervised by the Education Department and similar government agencies around the world, does not give conclusive reasons for why American students had such a dismal performance. But it offers possible clues.

First, researchers said that school curricula seem stronger in other nations than in the United States. The percentage of high school seniors taking math and science courses also is lower here than in most other nations. American students spend fewer hours on homework than most of their international peers. And many more American high school seniors work. More than half of them who took the test said they spend three hours a day at a paid job. Only about one-fifth of high school students from other nations had to balance a daily job with their class work. American students reported watching roughly the same amount of television weekly as students abroad.

To some educators, the test results starkly reveal how far the nation's high schools are from the goal state governors set at the start of the decade: to make American students "first in the world" in math and science.

Many states and school districts have begun the difficult task of revamping what they teach in those vital subjects, and there are signs that strides are being made. On another highly regarded exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, student scores in math and science have risen in recent years.

But some of the nation's top business leaders, worried about American competitiveness in the global economy, have been pressuring schools to show more academic progress. "These results are very disappointing," said Susan Traiman, who directs education initiatives for the Business Roundtable, a national group of executives from large corporations. "It looks like reforms are taking hold in the early grades, but once we get beyond the basics, it's clear that our curriculum is still not demanding."

Other educators, however, contend that drawing profound conclusions from an international test is risky, even dubious, because the educational systems of other nations are so different from those in the United States, where schools are run locally and often have extraordinarily diverse student enrollments. Of the 21 nations that took part in the latest test, for example, half had a strict national curriculum, a notion that much of the American public views either with suspicion or hostility.

Riley said the poor test results offer compelling evidence for why states and Congress should support Clinton's call for voluntary national tests for eighth-graders in math. Only a small sample of students now take national tests, and many educators say Clinton's plan -- which Congress has delayed -- could prompt schools to demand more from students. But critics say the testing Clinton wants could create too much federal involvement in schools and lead to a national curriculum.

The latest test results are the third and final part of an international study that began three years ago. It is the most comprehensive attempt ever made to compare the academic work of students around the world. Some skeptics of other similar efforts say this one is more credible because students from all types of high schools were tested.

One bright spot on the test for the United States was that, unlike in many other nations, the scores of male and female students in math and science were roughly the same.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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