By Motoko Rich
Fourth- and eighth-grade students in the United States continue to lag behind students in several East Asian countries and some European nations in math and science, although American fourth-graders are closer to the top performers in reading, according to test results released Tuesday.
Fretting about how American schools compare with those in other countries has become a regular pastime in education circles. Results from two new reports, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, are likely to fuel further debate.
South Korea and Singapore led the international rankings in math and fourth-grade science, while Singapore and Taiwan had the top-performing students in eighth-grade science. The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, ninth in eighth-grade math, seventh in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science.
Although the average scores among American students were not significantly lower than the top performers, several nations far outstripped the United States in the proportion of students who scored at the highest levels on the math and science tests.
In the United States, only 7 percent of students reached the advanced level in eighth-grade math, while 48 percent of eighth-graders in Singapore and 47 percent of eighth-graders in South Korea reached the advanced level. As those with superior math and science skills increasingly thrive in a global economy, the lag among American students could be a cause for concern.
“Clearly, we have some room to improve, particularly at the number of advanced students we have compared to the world,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics at the Education Department, which administers and analyzes the results of the tests in the United States.
The tests, which are designed by the International Study Center at Boston College in collaboration with government education officials and academic researchers in participating countries, are administered to a random selection of demographically representative students across the world.
Fourth-graders in 57 countries or education systems took the math and science tests, while 56 countries or education systems administered the tests to eighth graders. (Education systems include American states or regions like Hong Kong in China or Northern Ireland in Britain.) In reading, 53 countries and education systems participated.
Hong Kong and Russia had the highest average test scores in fourth-grade reading, with American students ranking sixth. Students in Florida, one of the states to break out results separately, achieved a higher average score than students in the nation overall.
Students in Finland, which is often held up as a model education system for its teacher preparation and its relative absence of high-stakes testing, outperformed American students on all the exams. But students in countries with intense testing cultures also exceeded American students. “Some of the high-performing math and science countries have extremely rigorous testing regimes,” Buckley said.
The test designers included questionnaires for parents about preparation before formal schooling. Ina V. S. Mullis, an executive director of the International Study Center, said that students whose parents reported singing or playing number games as well as reading aloud with their children early in life scored higher on their fourth-grade tests than those whose parents who did not report such activities. Similarly, students who had attended preschool performed better.
“What’s remarkable is that in all the countries, this concept of an early start is there over and over again,” said Michael O. Martin, the other executive director of the center. “You can get the early childhood experience in a variety of ways, but it’s important you get it.”