U.S. Science and Math Scores Remain Worrying

Stephen DeAngelis

December 22, 2008

Most people are aware that for a couple of decades U.S. test scores in science and math have been falling behind those of some international students (mostly Asian students). Recent test scores indicate that the situation has not improved [“Scores on Science Test Causing Concern in U.S.,” by Maria Glod, Washington Post, 10 December 2008]. As I wrote in another post back in February 2007, “The information age is also the age of mathematics. Many of the challenges that will face businesses in the future will require math graduates more than business graduates to solve them. One of the reasons that many pundits see a bright future for Asia is because many Asian education systems stress mathematics in their core curricula.” Glod writes:

“U.S. students are doing no better on an international science exam than they were in the mid-1990s, a performance plateau that leaves educators and policymakers worried about how schools are preparing students to compete in an increasingly global economy. Results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) … show how fourth- and eighth-graders in the United States measure up to peers around the world. U.S. students showed gains in math in both grades. But average science performance, although still stronger than in many countries, has stagnated since 1995. Students in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong outperformed U.S. fourth-graders in science. The U.S. students had an average score of 539 on a 1,000-point scale, higher than their peers in 25 countries. In eighth grade, Singapore topped the list, with an average score of 567. Students in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, England, Hungary and Russia were among those earning higher marks than their U.S. counterparts. The average score in the United States was 520.”

There is a small, but dedicated, dedicated group of educators and community activists that have been trying to increase interest in math and science in the United States, but their efforts remain on the fringes of education. For an example of on-going efforts, read my post Speaking in Numbers. Glod notes that if we’re progressing we’re falling further behind.

“‘We need to pay attention to the results. We’re just static, and other countries are improving,’ said Francis Eberle, executive director of the Arlington County-based National Science Teachers Association.”

Some critics believe that science test scores demonstrated little improvement because science was downplayed, if not ignored, during the Bush administration. There were even occasional accusations that the administration tried to manipulate scientific studies. Many hope that will change with a new administration.

“President-elect Barack Obama has promised to make math and science education a national priority. He said the federal government would work with states to improve science education, beginning in preschool, and he plans to establish a teaching scholarship program to recruit graduates with backgrounds in math and science.”

It will take more than rhetoric, however, to get students interested in math and science. As I wrote in the post cited above, polls have shown that parents recognize the importance of math and science but are so ignorant in those subjects that they don’t know how to begin introducing their children to them or they are afraid to expose their lack of knowledge. Until adults get excited about science and math, they shouldn’t expect their children to get excited either.

“The TIMSS tests, administered every four years since 1995, were taken last year by a sampling of students in the United States and more than 50 other countries. In the United States, more than 20,000 students in nearly 500 public and private schools participated. U.S. students made notable strides in math. Since 1995, the average score among fourth-graders has jumped 11 points, to 529. But students in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Russia and England were among those with a higher average. Hong Kong topped the list with an average score of 607. Eighth-graders also had a higher average score than in 1995 and bested counterparts in 37 countries. But they lagged behind peers in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, among other places.”

While the Bush administration’s record on science is mixed, its record on math is stronger.

“Some educators and officials attribute the gains to a renewed focus on math education in recent years. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to administer annual math tests, with the goal of steadily improving performance. In 2006, President Bush appointed a panel to recommend ways to ensure that students are prepared for algebra. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the scores ‘reconfirm what we have long known: If we set high expectations, our children will rise to the challenge.’ She added that ‘flat science scores … remind us that we can’t afford to be complacent.’ The benefits of tough standards and a focus on foundational skills were reflected in test score gains in Minnesota, according to William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who worked with Minnesota education officials. In 1995, before the state implemented math standards based on international benchmarks, Minnesota fourth-graders trailed peers across the country. But in the 2007 TIMSS testing, Minnesota outpaced the nation and trailed only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. ‘It says, “America you can do it, and the way to do it is to have coherent, focused and rigorous standards,”‘ Schmidt said. The scores led to renewed calls to bolster science and math in the nation’s schools by increasing the ranks of well-prepared teachers and providing other support.”

Stagnant test scores have not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill.

“‘While it’s good news that fourth-graders have made significant gains in math, it’s troubling that our students are still behind their international peers in both math and science — fields that are key to our country’s economic vitality and competitiveness,’ said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. ‘It’s increasingly clear that building a world-class education system that provides students with a strong foundation in math and science must be part of any meaningful long-term economic recovery strategy.'”

Government leaders around the world have watched the rise of the Asian tigers and they clearly understand the relationship between improved education (especially in math, science, and engineering) and a prosperous economy. American students, however, follow the money. In recent decades compensation has been best in finance and on the business end (rather than the R&D) end of the private sector. The current financial crisis might stimulate some students to pursue science, math or engineering degrees rather than business or finance degrees; but without good, well-paying jobs waiting for them at the end of their educational trail, any gains created by the current crisis will be short-lived.