U.S. Education: Failing in Science?

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, March 12, 1988 | Go to article overview

U.S. Education: Failing in Science?


Raloff, Janet, Science News


U.S. education: Failing in science?

U.S. science and math education at the primary and secondary levels is foundering, according to two new surveys released last week by the National Science Foundation. Preliminary results from one survey comparing students' science and math achievement in 17 countries ranked U.S. students fair to poor. A second U.S.-only study identified worrisome trends in both the nation's teaching practices and its science-teacher education.

The multi-nation study, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, an association of research centers, compared students' performance on special standardized tests at the roughly fifth-, ninth- and twelfth-grade levels. The study looked at approximately 150 students at each of these levels in each country. While U.S. fifth-graders ranked eighth among 15 responding nations, U.S. ninth-graders tied with those in Thailand and Singapore for fourteenth place in a field of 17 responding nations.

But these are grade levels at which all students are taking the same courses. What about the high-achieving science "specialists"-- high school seniors taking an optional second year of advanced biology, chemistry or physics? Among the 13 countries responding--Australia, English-speaking Canada, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Sweden and the United States--U.S. students placed last in biology, eleventh in chemistry and ninth in physics.

What should concern U.S. education policymakers, says Richard N. Wolf of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, who was one of the survey's two U.S. coordinators, is "this apparent progressive decline" in science achievement: from the middle-ranking younger grades -- which include even below-average students -- to older science specialists.

Bill C. Aldridge, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Science Teachers Association, describes the low rankings given the best U.S. science students as "pretty distressing." Nevertheless, he says, their international standing "is very easy to understand if you look at the other [nations'] curricula." Topping the survey's list for twelfth-grade science specialists were Hong Kong, England and Singapore--nations where these students take only science and math courses. Such curricula are in sharp contrast to a more varied training given U.S. students. (Wolf, who studied this "two-cultures phenomenon" in British Commonwealth countries, says he found that by offering only literature or science in upper grades, "you often had scientists who were illiterate or humanists who were innumerate.")

But most science-education analysts don't think course offerings explain the whole disparity in scores. Many point to other potential cofactors described in the U.S. study involving 6,156 teachers, authored by Iris Weiss, formerly with Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park, N. …

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