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Study: U.S. trails in science and math

American students are doing better than the international average in science and math, but still lag behind a number of Asian and European peers.

U.S. students have made some progress since 1995 in math, while science scores have remained flat, according to an international study whose 2007 results were released today.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is administered every four years to students around the world.

In math, American fourth graders scored eleventh out of 36 countries, below such nations as Hong Kong, Singapore, England and Latvia. Eighth graders ranked ninth on the list of 48. Average math scores for both groups have risen since 1995, the first year the test was given. In science, U.S. fourth graders placed eighth, and eighth graders ranked 11th. Those rankings have dropped - the U.S. was sixth in fourth grade science and ninth in eighth grade science in 2003.

The mixed results drew disappointment from many quarters.

"Americans have never thought of ourselves as part of the mediocre middle, and now is hardly the time to get comfortable with that status," Kati Haycock, president of the Washington-based Education Trust, said in a statement.

F. Joseph Merlino, project director of the Math Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia, said that parents ought to be concerned.

"We are not in the 1960s any longer, when the U.S. was preeminent," Merlino said. "They should be saying, 'What about my children? Are they going to be able to get a job and compete and make their way in the world?'"

Worldwide, a representative sample of 425,000 students took the TIMSS. And while some critics say the test isn't a fair comparison, given the economic diversity and decentralized education structure of the U.S., it is clear that although American students do about as well as students in other developed nations, some Asian countries continue to dominate.

Six percent of American students scored at the highest level in math. In the top three performing countries - Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore - more than half of the students reached the top tier.

But, Americans scored in line with other developed countries, said Ina V.S. Mullis, a Boston College research professor and co-director of the study.

"The Asian countries are way ahead of the rest of developed countries, but mostly the developed countries are relatively similar," Mullis said. "And the United States might be one of the leaders of that group, depending on whether you're talking about math or science in the fourth or the eighth grade."

Locally, one Philadelphia charter school is trying to address the global gap by using "Singapore math," which calls for students to learn fewer basic concepts in a deeper way, and stresses visual tools to understand abstract concepts.

The Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures School in Chinatown attributes higher scores on state math tests to Singapore math, based on education in the Southeast Asian nation-state. On the TIMSS, Singapore ranked second in fourth grade and third in eighth grade math.

But Singapore's approach to education is very different than America's, Merlino points out.

"Singapore controls education from beginning to end - from recruiting teachers to training them. They assign their best teachers to the worst schools, and they have a very different ethic, a cultural mindset where teachers must get those kids to proficient," said Merlino.

Merlino and his organization advocate changing how teachers are hired. Universities' top math and science students ought to be recruited as teachers and paid higher salaries. They must commit to working year-round and spending five years in education, he said.

And while his group, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, was pleased with the math gains American students have made in the past decade, Hank Kepner, president of the group, decried the economic disparities the TIMSS showed.

"The facts show that students in the highest poverty schools scored below the international average in both fourth and eighth grades. We need to give all students - not just students in affluent schools - the opportunity to experience challenging mathematics throughout their educational experience," Kepner said.

The TIMSS exam also revealed that in the U.S., black and Hispanic students still had lower math and science scores than white students, but the gap between them generally shrank since 1995.

Globally, girls are closing the gender gap, with half the countries showing no difference in test scores between boys and girls. In the other half, girls did better in a quarter of the countries, and boys did better in a quarter of the countries.

In the U.S., boys did slightly better than girls in fourth-grade math, but the gender gap disappeared by eighth grade.

Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota did better than the U.S. overall. In fact, Massachusetts students did as well as some of their Asian peers. Results were reported only for those two states which took part in the study separately.

The TIMSS report coincided with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's release of state science exam results in which only 36 percent of 11th graders statewide met benchmarks.

State education secretary Gerald Zahorchak said he was troubled both by state test and TIMSS results.

"At the elementary and middle school levels, U.S. students are trailing their international peers in science," Zahorchak said in a statement. "And by the time they reach high school, half as many students are on grade level in science in Pennsylvania compared to our elementary schools. That means we are putting our future graduates at an unforgivable double disadvantage."