U.S. Schoolchildren Lag Asian Peers on Academic Tests

U.S. schoolchildren trailed Asian peers on one of the largest international tests of math, science and reading, highlighting a challenge to American competiveness.

Eight countries or regions including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong outscored the U.S. in eighth-grade math, while nine did in science, according to the 2011 test, called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. On a reading exam, the U.S. lagged behind five. Some U.S. states such as Florida and Massachusetts bucked the trend, shining in some subjects.

The latest international results will add to complaints from business and political leaders that the U.S. workforce is losing its edge. While U.S. eighth-graders have shown no meaningful improvement in math and science since 2007, Asian counterparts have generally been ramping up their performance, said Ina V. S. Mullis, an education professor at Boston College, which administers the tests.

“The dramatically superior achievement of the Asian countries is rather breathtaking,” Mullis, co-director of the exams, said in a telephone interview. “Closing the gap is really tough and probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”

The underperformance of U.S. students on international tests helped inspire a 10-year effort to hold schools accountable for improving performance under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law through state standardized reading and math testing.

Florida Shines

Saying the law’s reliance on testing has led to a dumbing down of education, President Barack Obama has excused two-thirds of U.S. states from No Child Left Behind’s main rules after they pledged to turn around low-performing schools and tie teacher evaluations to student achievement.

On the latest round of international tests, nine U.S. states sought to have results broken out separately.

In fourth-grade reading, where the U.S. has improved its performance since the last test was given, Florida had among the best scores, performing at the same level as top-achieving Hong Kong, Russia, Finland and Singapore. In the late 1990s, Florida was near the bottom of the pack in fourth-grade U.S. reading scores. The state was the only one in the U.S. to break out its reading results.

Jeb Bush, governor of Florida from 1999 through 2007, instituted a program that targeted kindergarten through third-grade reading, requiring more academic training in kindergarten, “reading coaches” to help tailor instruction and a policy of holding back third-graders with the weakest skills.

Jeb Bush

The international test validated the state’s approach, said Mary Laura Bragg, who ran Bush’s initiative and is now policy director for Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Tallahassee, Florida-based education advocacy group founded by Bush.

Bush’s successors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott have built on the program, adding such measures as a three-times-a-year online assessment to catch readers who are falling behind, said Mary Jane Tappen, a deputy chancellor at the Florida Division of Public Schools.

“This is a result of a decade of very hard work,” Tappen said in a telephone interview.

In eighth-grade science, only Singapore had a higher average score than Massachusetts. The state, which has long had chart-topping performance, developed new assessments and standards in the 1990s.

63 Countries

The international math and science tests have been given every four years since 1995. In the 2011 round, more than 600,000 children in 63 countries took the math and science exam, which measured achievement in fourth and eighth-grades. About 300,000 students in 49 countries sat for the fourth-grade reading test, called Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, given every five years since 2001.

In math, the test covers commonly taught subjects such as geometry and algebra. In science, it covers biology, chemistry and physics. In reading, top-performing students show they can understand and interpret stories and articles of 800 to 1,000 words.

Students performing well on the latest exams tended to start early on the subject and go to well-financed schools with highly trained and satisfied teachers working in orderly environments, researchers found. The children of parents with higher levels of education performed better, as well.

Reaching Advanced

The tests’ results are reported on a 0 to 1,000-point scale, with 500 representing the international average the first year the test was given.

In math, U.S. eighth-graders on average scored 509 in 2011, up one point from 2007 and 17 points since 1995. Top-performing Korea averaged 613, up 32 points since 1995.

The difference between some country’s scores wasn’t enough to be statistically significant, researchers said. On that basis, U.S. eighth-grade math scores were worse than six countries or regions including Singapore and Japan and no different from seven, such as Israel, Finland and England.

Asian countries outshined the U.S. in answering the toughest questions.

Almost half of eighth-graders in Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea showed they could reach the “advanced” level in math, meaning they could relate fractions, decimals and percents to each other; understand algebra; and solve simple probability problems. In the U.S., 7 percent met that standard.

“That is a pretty stark difference,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “The highest-performing countries are in a whole different league.”

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