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U.S. Students Continue to Lag in Math, Science


Curriculum CenterAn official with the U.S. Department of Education today called results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R) disappointing but added that sustained efforts to improve teacher preparation and other factors are needed for consistent improvement.

Improving the preparation -- and number -- of mathematics and science teachers in the United States is critical if American students are going to keep pace with their counterparts internationally, a U.S. Department of Education official told Education World Wednesday.

Linda Rosen, senior advisor for mathematics and science to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, cited these issues a day after the release of a another international study showing that U.S. eighth graders continue to lag in math and science skills.

Although calling the results of the study, the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R) disappointing, Rosen said they are not completely surprising.

"It really tells us what we expected," Rosen said. "Change is going to take sustained time and attention, and we won't see immediate progress unless we keep it up."


Although American eighth graders performed better than an international average in mathematics and science in 1999, according to TIMSS-R, they have shown no improvement since the first study was done in 1995.

"This shows the United States has not made much progress, which is rather disappointing to those who had hoped to see great strides," said Michael O. Martin, the international study co-director for TIMSS-R. The project is sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and directed by the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

Riley, however, said Tuesday that American students are "successfully learning more math and science every year they are in school."


Results from the TIMSS-R showed that American eighth graders ranked 19th out of 38 countries in math and 18th in science. The findings were disappointing to some education officials, who had hoped to see improvement after American fourth graders ranked high in the initial study four years ago. The 1995 TIMSS report also included eighth and 12th graders.

"This finding [from the 1999 report] validates the results of the previous 1995 study that after the fourth grade, students in the United States fall behind their international peers as they pass through the school system," said Dr. Gary Phillips, acting commissioner of education statistics for the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES.) NCES released the results Tuesday in a report, Pursuing Excellence: Comparisons of International Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement from a U.S. Perspective, 1995 and 1999. The study was sponsored by NCES and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States.

TIMSS-R allows researchers to compare the performances of fourth graders in 1995 with the performances of eighth graders in 1999. The same students were not tested in fourth and eighth grade, however, Martin told Education World. The 1999 results indicate that the relative performance for eighth grade students in mathematics and science was lower in 1999 than it was for fourth grade students in 1995, according to the Department of Education.

The only U.S. students who improved in mathematics were African Americans, but they posted no gains in science, the report shows.


Unlike in 1995, the top-performing students on the 1999 test all were from Asian countries. Last year, countries scoring highest on the mathematics section were Singapore, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. The Flemish-speaking section of Belgium was sixth and Canada tenth. On the science section, the leaders were Taiwan, Singapore, Hungary, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Canada was 14th.

In 1995, Singapore students scored highest on both the math and science tests. On the math section, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Flemish-speaking section of Belgium followed Singapore. In science, the Czech Republic, Japan, Korea, and Bulgaria rounded out the top five.

Overall, about 200,000 students worldwide participated in the 1999 study, including 9,000 U.S. eighth graders from 250 schools.


Among the areas cited in the report for further study is that American students are more likely to be taught math and science by teachers who majored in education rather than in the subject areas. About 40 percent of U.S. eighth graders learned science from teachers who reported "a low level of confidence in their preparation to teach science," the report states.

Riley said in a prepared statement that the issue needs prompt attention. "It's apparent that we need to make a major investment in upgrading teacher skills in math, science, and other subjects. That's something we can do immediately."

The shortage of math and science teachers, forcing teachers from other disciplines to fill in, is a national problem, according to Rosen. "We have a terrific problem with out-of-field teachers," she said. "In September, schools will have an adult in front of a classroom, but in many cases, that adult did not even minor in math or science."

Rosen also noted that federal officials will continue to use John Glenn Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, which was released in September and spelled out how the federal government and local schools could improve math and science teaching, as a guide. Some of the recommendations in the Glenn Commission Report included increasing collaboration among math and science teachers, encouraging more professional development, and offering incentives for students to become math and science teachers.

Although more-comprehensive reforms are under study, classroom teachers can inventory the areas of knowledge they need to enhance and be vocal to supervisors about what they think makes better teachers, Rosen added. "Better-educated teachers lead to better-educated students."

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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