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Published: Wednesday, 12/6/2000

Improvement in math, science eludes 8th graders in America

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

America's eighth graders still are overshadowed by children in industrialized Asian and European nations, scoring only at average levels on the latest round of international math and science tests.

Despite more than four years of efforts to improve American student performance in science and math, a report released yesterday shows little improvement for the middle-schoolers from the first set of uniform tests in 1995.

U.S. educators blame a lack of follow-through on improvement plans developed after the 1995 tests, which also included fourth and 12th graders. The earlier tests showed not only that U.S. students made average scores, but seemed to do worse as they grew older. The latest tests, conducted in 1999, covered only eighth-graders.

“It's not surprising that in four years we haven't seen real changes,” said Christopher Cross of the Council on Basic Education, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. “We've gotten the message. We just haven't taken it to the classroom.

In the last year, the Toledo Public School system has begun to respond to demands for higher math achievement. Last week, the Toledo school board approved $345,000 to buy pre-algebra and algebra textbooks for junior and senior high school students.

The district intends to require eighth graders to begin taking pre-algebra and, in high school, all students will have to complete algebra I and some form of geometry.

Currently, nearly half of Toledo public high school students never take a math course harder than transitional math or consumer math - courses that mostly review elementary math skills, said Kay Ladd, the chairman of the math textbook committee.

“In many cases, our students haven't been challenged with higher levels of math,” Ms. Ladd said.

“Most of the state of Ohio has gone to algebra as a minimum requirement. If you look at the [new high school] graduation test, the sophistication of the mathematics is there, and students to be competitive will have to have algebra and geometry,” she said.

The 1999 test of eighth graders did show U.S. students scored a few points above the average score of all nations.

Education Secretary Richard Riley credited U.S. educators with efforts to boost learning: “There is a new mood about education in America. Everything I've seen tells me the American people are rising to the challenge.”

The testing, organized by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement and conducted by individual education authorities, showed that in 1999 math and science testing, a dozen nations out of 38 participating in the study outperformed of the United States.

They are Australia, the Flemish (Dutch) part of Belgium, Canada, Taiwan, Finland, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Singapore, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia.

U.S. students shared the average field with Bulgaria, Latvia, and New Zealand; American children did better than those in 17 other countries in science and math.

Students were asked questions about algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, and other topics that children would have been expected to have covered at their grade level.

Questions went well beyond simple math and science knowledge. In a typical math question from the test, which was translated into each country's language, students were given the problem 691+208 and asked to show which of several other sums were closest. The choices were 600+200, 700+200, 700+300 and 900+200. Answer: 700+200.

Some questions required detailed calculations or explanations.

Other nations' reactions to their students' standings varied widely.

“We are looking at ourselves, not comparing ourselves with other countries,” said Thailand's Chaiwat Watcharamai, a national education testing official. Thailand scored below the United States in science and in math.

With average national performance set around 500, math scores ranged from 604 in Singapore to 275 in South Africa; science scores ranged from 569 in Taiwan to 243 in South Africa. The U.S. score was 502 in math; 515 in science.

France and Germany did not participate, the only major industrialized nations that didn't.

More than 100,000 children, including 9,072 from the United States, were picked randomly from each nation's eighth graders or the national equivalent and were tested in the primary language of instruction.

The study analyzed results from 23 nations that gave the eighth-grade tests in 1995 and in 1999.

A Blade staff writer contributed to this article.



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