US Students No Better than Average in Math and Science

Lawmakers, education advocates and even business experts all worry that the quality of America's education system could knock it out of economic contention in the coming decades. According to John Hechinger writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, those worries are probably justified by the results of recent exams which stacked up American students against their Asian peers.

When it came to math skills, 8th-graders from around the country were outscored in mathematics by students from eight countries including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, nine countries outperformed American students in science.

This unmitigated bad news – or a wake up call, depending on perspective – comes courtesy of the latest edition of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The study also showed Americans didn't do quite as badly in reading, outperforming students in all but five other countries on the exam.

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.

Those seeking answers could find them close to home. When the data was broken down by state, it was clear that at least in some parts of the country – mainly in Massachusetts and in Florida – students are performing quite well.

Still, it was similar results on the International Trends study more than a decade ago that inspired a call for greater accountability that brought forth President George W. Bush's key educational policy measure, the No Child Left Behind Act. Ten years on it appears that NCLB hasn't borne the expected academic fruit.

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.

Mary Laura Bragg, who was responsible for implementing many educational initiatives in Florida under the 1999-2007 governorship of Jeb Bush, credits him with Florida's stunning improvement. She says the implementation of a more rigorous reading program in kindergarten through third grade sharply reduced the rates of social grade promotion and also brought "reading coaches" to struggling schools, which proved the intervention's worth in this round of international tests.

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