U.S. students gain in math, stay flat in science

American kids are doing better than people think in math and science, a new international study has found. But–according to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS–some Asian countries have an edge in math that just keeps growing.

U.S. students have made significant gains in math since 1995 and score above average on international fourth- and eighth-grade tests in the subject, according to results released Dec. 9.

However, the United States has a long way to go to lead the world in math. The study reported dramatically higher math scores in five Asian countries–Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea–than other countries participating in the study.

Even so, the findings contradict a persistent view in the United States that its children are lagging behind the rest of the developed world. An AP poll in June found that nearly two in five people believe American students do worse on math and science tests than those in most of the developed countries.

Not true, the TIMSS authors report.

"Certainly, our results do not show the United States trailing the developed world by any stretch of the imagination," said Ina V.S. Mullis, a Boston College research professor and co-director of the study.

"The Asian countries are way ahead of the rest of developed countries, but mostly the developed countries are relatively similar," Mullis said. "And the United States might be one of the leaders of that group, depending on whether you’re talking about math or science in the fourth or the eighth grade."

The top-performing Asian countries had an advantage not only in test scores; they had the largest share of students reaching advanced benchmarks that represent fluency in the most complex topics and reasoning skills.

For the U.S., the news in another area isn’t as good: Kids still do slightly better in science than math and are well above average, but scores have stagnated since 1995. In the meantime, other countries, including Singapore and Hong Kong, have made significant gains, surpassing the United States.

Conducted every four years, the TIMSS study is widely used to measure the knowledge and skills of elementary and middle-school students around the world. In 2007, 48 countries took part in eighth-grade tests, and 36 countries took part in fourth-grade tests. In all, 425,000 students were tested, about 4,000 in each country.

The study compares the United States with other rich, industrialized countries as well as many poorer nations. Scores in the U.S. were above the international average in each subject and grade.

The findings are consistent with the United States’ National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, often called the nation’s report card. That study has also found progress in math and less progress in science. And state tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law show similar results.

"Now all of our major tests are telling us the same things," said Tom Loveless, an education expert at the Brookings Institution and a representative to the international group that administers the test.

The poor perception of U.S. achievement has been reinforced by another international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, which is given to 15-year-olds in 30 developed countries. But that test is not tied to the school curriculum, as TIMSS and NAEP are. Rather, it focuses on real-world applications of math.

Other findings released Dec. 9 include:

– In the U.S., black and Hispanic students still had lower math and science scores than white students, but the gap between them generally shrank since 1995, except for the gap in math scores between white and Hispanic fourth-graders, which didn’t change. Closing this achievement gap is a federal priority.

– Girls are closing the gender gap across the globe, with half the countries showing no difference in test scores between boys and girls. In the other half, girls did better in a quarter of the countries, and boys did better in a quarter of the countries. In the U.S., boys did slightly better than girls in fourth-grade math, but the gender gap disappeared by eighth grade.

– Finding highly qualified math and science teachers is an increasing problem around the world, especially in fourth grade. Fourth-grade teachers reported little specific training or specialized education, especially in science.

TIMSS is run by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition of research institutions.


Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

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