U.S. Gets Mixed Marks For Science Education

Staff Writer

Singaporean students lead the world in math and science, according to the latest international comparison of student performance. Educators say that a top ranking, among elementary and middle school students from as many as 49 countries, demonstrates how a nation's commitment to excellence can pay off fairly quickly.

The findings come from the 2003 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released 14 December by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Singapore had excelled in two previous studies, but this time its fourth graders rose from fifth to first place in science after education officials revamped the small island nation's curriculum, strengthened teacher training, and provided nearly every student with access to computers and modern lab equipment. "The lesson here is that when you focus on a goal, you can produce measurable results within a short period of time," says Patrick Gonzales, an analyst with the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in Washington, D.C.

More than 360,000 fourth and eighth grade students participated in the 2003 study, taking math and science tests designed to assess both knowledge and understanding and based on common elements of the various curricula. Average scores for a country were determined using calculations that took into account the percentage of its students who correctly answered individual questions.

The survey's top tier has a decidedly Asian flavor, with students from Japan, Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong ranking among the top five countries in both math and science at both grade levels. Most European countries are somewhere in the middle while most Middle Eastern and North African nations are closer to the bottom. And although boys and girls have similar scores in math at both levels in most of the participating countries, boys show significantly higher achievement than girls in eighth grade science.

For U.S. students, the results send a mixed message. Eighth graders did better in both subjects, rising from 28th (of 41 countries) to 15th (of 46) in math and from 17th to 9th in science since 1995. But fourth-grade students stayed in the middle of the pack in math—12th out of 26 and 25 countries, respectively, and lost ground in science, slipping from 3rd to 6th place.

The decline in fourth-grade science is a direct result of less time spent on the subject, argues the National Science Teachers' Association (NSTA). "We have been hearing from many elementary teachers that they are not teaching science because of the increased emphasis on literacy," says NSTA executive director Gerald Wheeler. "Science is essentially being squeezed out of the elementary classroom." The TIMSS report is the second study released this month that finds U.S. students wanting in science and math literacy (ScienceNOW, 7 December).

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The TIMSS study

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