Published January 14, 2015
U.S. eighth-graders are gaining on their peers across the globe in science and math, but fourth-graders are being passed as their test scores remain stagnant, according to an international review of school performance.
The 2003 test results released Tuesday offer some hope and relief to the United States, coming just a week after its 15-year-olds did poorly in math in another prominent comparison.
The achievement gap (search) between black and white children is shrinking, the new scores show, a central goal of the government's education policies under President Bush.
Yet several countries, particularly in Asia, continue to outperform the United States in science and math, fields at the heart of research, innovation and economic competitiveness.
Given this country's recent emphasis on achievement in the early grades, the flat performance by fourth-graders drew concern, and some playing down, from U.S. officials.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS (search), is a test of curriculum taught in all participating countries, from chemistry and physics to geometry and algebra. It is a respected benchmark of a country's performance in primary and middle grades.
"It's really the only way we have to determine how the United States as a nation is doing in preparing its children and its students in math and science," said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Education Department.
Federal officials also suggested Tuesday that a better measure of U.S. achievement would be how students do on the test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (search). On that U.S. test, more closely aligned to standards and content taught in schools here, fourth-graders and eighth-graders made sizable gains at every level in math in 2003.
In the new study, the United States is compared with other industrialized countries and many poorer ones. Given that range, the United States was above average across the board.
Forty-five countries took part at eighth grade and 25 countries at fourth grade when representative samples of students took the test. Among major findings for the U.S. students:
—Eighth-graders improved their scores in science and math since 1995, when the test first was given. While the science progress has come largely since the last test, in 1999, the math rise came mainly between 1995 and 1999 and not in recent years. The rising scores of eighth-graders also gave the United States a higher ranking relative to other countries.
—Fourth-graders did not improve or decline in science or math since 1995, and as a result, they slipped in the international rankings as other countries made gains.
—In both grades and both subjects, black students closed their test-score gap with whites. Hispanic students also closed the learning gap with whites in eighth-grade science.
Donald Thompson, an education leader at the National Science Foundation, said schools have made noticeable gains in eighth-grade algebra since the last version of the test. "When concentrated attention is brought to bear on the nation's education problems, our school systems have the capacity to take action and to get extremely positive results," he said.
Business and academic leaders have been clamoring for such attention on science and math so that students will be ready for college and careers demanding technical knowledge.
"Every caring parent in America knows that reading to a young child promotes literacy. But how many parents know the fundamental building blocks of math?" said Joseph Tucci, education task force chairman at the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives.
Asian countries are setting the pace in advanced science and math, said Ina Mullis, co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College, which manages the study.
As one example, 44 percent of eighth-graders in Singapore scored at the most advanced level in math, as did 38 percent in Taiwan. Only 7 percent in the United States did.
"We have to keep at it, and maybe even step up the pace," Mullis said. "Even though a lot of people are working very hard on reforms, we don't seem to reap commensurate benefits."
Education Department leaders framed the results a bit differently, saying that U.S. children are holding their ground in fourth grade and making gains in eighth grade.
Just a week ago, results from the Program for International Student Assessment showed U.S. 15-year-olds are below average when it comes to applying math skills to real-life tasks.
Yet U.S. eighth-graders, typically 13 or 14 years old, did well on TIMSS, which covers grade-level curriculum instead of daily applications. TIMSS is run by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition of research institutions.