U.S. Students Fail to Impress in Math and Science

Posted By Terri Williams on April 4, 2017 at 8:36 am
U.S. Students Fail to Impress in Math and Science

When it comes to athletics, the U.S. excels – take a look at the final medal standings for the 2016 Rio Olympics. But when it comes to academics, particularly math and science, not so much, according to new data from the Pew Research Center.

Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests 15-year-old students in reading, math, and science. Out of 71 countries, the U.S. was in 38th place in math, and 24th place in science.

That’s not all. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, tests 4th and 8th grade students every four years. Out of 48 countries, U.S. 4th graders were in 11th place in math, and 8th place in science. However, among 8th grade students, the U.S. placed 8th in both math and science, out of 37 countries.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, only 40% of 4th grade students in the U.S., 33% of 8th grade students, and 25% of 12th grade students had scores that were either “proficient” or “advanced” in math. In fact, 38% of 12th graders scored at the lowest level of proficiency.

In science, only 38% of 4th grade students, 34% of 8th graders, and 22% of high school seniors were proficient or better. On the other hand, the number of 4th, 8th and 12th graders scoring “below basic” levels were 24%, 32%, and 40%, respectively.

Notice that math and science scores among U.S. high school students are much lower than the math and science scores of elementary or junior high school students. This is consistent with research that found girls lose interest in STEM subjects when they enter high school.

While test scores answer the what question, foreign exchange students may provide insight into why American students are not taking the lead academically. A Brookings Institute survey of foreign exchange students reveals the following:

  • 44% of foreign exchange students think American students spend much less time on schoolwork.
  • 66.4% of foreign exchange students think classes in the U.S. are much easier than classes in their home country.
  • 64.1% of foreign exchange students believe U.S. students value success in sports more than academic achievement.
  • 52% of foreign exchange students believe U.S. students feel it is less important to learn a second language than students in their home country.

A word about those tests

One concern with international tests is that they may not be comparing apples to apples. John Craven, associate professor of education in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, tells GoodCall®, “TIMSS and PISA are two widely cited international tests used to compare educational systems at the international level.” However, he explains, “Some researchers and practitioners debate the validity of those as a measure of a country’s educational system’s ability to prepare future citizens with 21st century skills.”

Craven says there are other concerns. “Also, some question the assumption that the educational system of a country can be represented and judged as a single model or enterprise.” For a county such as the U.S., which has diverse demographics and educational models, Craven says this is particularly true.

The uniqueness of both the country and its education system might partially explain the unimpressive showing in math and science. Brad Weinstein, M.Ed., Principal (and former science teacher) at Irvington Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis, IN, tells GoodCall®, “One important factor that we must consider about the United States is that our nation’s goal is to put every kid on the path to college, as opposed to some countries that put only the best and brightest on that pathway.”

As a result, Weinstein says the lower scores happen because all U.S. students are being compared with the best students in other countries.

And there’s another component that must be factored in. According to Craven, “The debate on the meaning and value of the international comparisons is certainly compounded by the fact that the nature, location and requirements of future jobs are clouded by rapid changes in national and international relationships and their emergent economies.”

The U.S. problem in math and science

But even after accounting for these factors, the stats are still alarmingly low. On one hand, the U.S. wants to be sure that no child is left behind, but at the same time, if the entire country is being left in the dust, there certainly are other issues. Perhaps the foreign exchange students are right.

According to Weinstein, “American culture tends to celebrate or idolize sports, celebrities, and social standing over academic achievement.” In fact, he says that students who are considered to be smart may be viewed negatively by their peers. Oddly enough, a recent study reveals that tech is actually a better bet than sports for students who want to become millionaires. However, most tech careers don’t have the same level of fame and hero-worship as sports and other forms of high-profile entertainment.

Unfortunately, this is one of the ways America is different. “In many high-achieving cultures, it is drilled into students’ heads early on from their families and schools that the way to get ahead in life is through education,” Weinstein says. However, he adds, “To be clear, American families do care about education, but where they put their time, energy, and priorities doesn’t always match that.”

Andrew Zimbalist, chair of the department of economics and the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College and the author of Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It, tells GoodCall®, “Sports is one element of a cultural trend away from books and toward video entertainment.” He explains, “One symptom of the trend is a vitiation of standards and expectations in the classroom; another is the cancer of philistinism and ignorance in our political system: and, still another, will be a creeping loss of competitiveness in world trade.

Some experts are already warning that American will need foreign labor to fill STEM jobs, and a recent survey reveals that half of all high-paying jobs will soon need coding skills – even non-IT jobs.

And because other countries place a high premium on education, Weinstein believes that their educational experiences are different. “While students in high-achieving cultures might be more compliant and do what they’re told in the classroom, many American students need to be engaged by teachers to garner buy-in.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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