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
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
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
"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
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