US Eighth-Graders Beat Global Average in Math

By Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 2000 | Go to article overview
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US Eighth-Graders Beat Global Average in Math


Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The good news: Eighth-graders in the United States are exceeding the international average in math and science among 38 nations, including top Asian math powers.

There's also no gender gap in mathematics here, unlike in many other countries. And black students in the US are significantly improving in both math and science.

The bad news: As fourth-graders, the US students ranked even higher above other nations. In other words, the US is losing ground globally in what it is learning about algebra and arthropods.

These are among the conclusions of a long-awaited study on the math and science prowess of US middle-school students. The report, the first of its kind in five years, gives both critics and supporters of US education policy something to trumpet.

When the fourth-grade results for the 1995 International Mathematics and Science Study came out, President Clinton marked the event with a Rose Garden ceremony - the top venue for good news in US politics. American fourth-graders ranked above the international average in math, and were outperformed only by Korea in science.

But the test results for eighth-graders had been merely average, and the 12th-grade results were dismal: US high school seniors ranked near the bottom of the world in general math and science - outperforming only Cyprus and South Africa.

Experts at the time suggested that the fourth-graders' performance better reflected the effects of recent education reforms, and predicted that as these younger students moved through school, there would be similarly strong results at higher grade levels.

That didn't happen.

If this cohort of eighth-graders continues to follow previous trends, they will be close to the bottom of the world by the time they graduate.

"This finding 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," comments Dr. Gary Phillips, acting commissioner of education statistics.

It's this possibility that's likely to make the test a political flashpoint in the months to come. With Congress gridlocked on education policy, educators are using issues raised in this test to argue for more targeted support for the classroom.

"If we're going to look at international math and science scores, we've got to look at the extent to which all children in America have access to qualified teachers in these areas," says Chuck Williams, director for teacher quality at the National Education Association.

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