In Math and Science, Have American Students Fallen Behind?

August 1, 2012

Is science and mathematics teaching inferior to science teaching in Singapore, South Korea, and Finland? Have American students fallen behind in math and science?

In the 2008 and 2012, Science Debate asked presidential candidates (as well as congressional candidates) why have American students fallen behind in science and mathematics and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students for the science and technology global economy?

Following are some “talking points” that Obama and Romney, and congressional candidates might consider as they talk about mathematics and science education.

Table 1 shows the education questions put to the two presidential and congressional candidates.

 

Science Education Question 2008 Science Education Question 2012
A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century? Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

Table 1. 2008 and 2012 Education Question asked by Science Debate

League Standings

In each question, the premise is that American mathematics and science education is way behind other countries based on rankings on PISA, an international study of more than60 county’s educational system by testing students in mathematics, reading and science literacy. Based on academic tests, PISA claims to assess literacy in terms of knowledge and skills needed in adult life. It is important to note that there is controversy around using a test to “measure” higher level thinking and applications to real life.

Dr. Svein SjĂžberg of the University of Oslo questions the use of these tests, and suggests that tests such as PISA are often considered as objective and value-free scientific truths, while in fact they are not. Consequently, politicians and the media misuse test results and create perceptions of a country’s overall education system that may in fact not be correct.

Normally, the results are reported comparing countries in a fashion similar to standings in professional sports, where 1 is at the top, which is typically Singapore, followed by lower scoring countries, and as suggested in the question, placing the U.S.A. 17th out of 30.

And it’s not just a concern expressed by U.S. politicians. Sjoberg reported (in a study–Real Life Challenges: Mission Impossible) that results on PISA of students in Norway provided “war-like headings” in most of Norway’s newspapers. In fact the commissioner of education of Norway was quoted as saying, “Norway is a school loser, and now it is well documented.”

There is a real problem in using results to compare one country to another. As some researchers have pointed out, the scores reported are averages for the country of the students who took the test. Often the differences between average scores from country to another are not significant, BUT politicians and the media see that if their country is not NUMBER ONE, “the sky is falling.”

So, when U.S. students score 17th on an international test, policy makers make the claim that science education in the U.S. is in free-fall, and needs to uplifted. Remember, that the score used on these tests is an average. There are more than 15,000 independent school systems in the U.S. and to use an average score on a science test (typically composed of 40 – 60 questions) does not describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in the U.S.A.’s schools.

David Berliner (in a research study entitled Our Schools vs. Theirs: Averages That Hide The True Extremes) points out that the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) data for the U.S.A., when analyzed by socioeconomic levels, shows great disparities and inequalities. For example, schools in the most affluent neighborhoods do well on these tests, but schools in poorer neighborhoods do not. And Berliner points out that scores on international tests will not change unless the inequalities in the schools are fixed.

That said, lets look at the question that Science Debate has posed to our politicians. Up front, it’s a good question because it will tell us a lot about the candidate’s understanding of our educational system, what tests measure, and what role the federal government should play in supporting American schools and what to do with the math and science “problem.”

Economic Preparedness of Students

If we are going to try to use test scores obtained from international tests to discuss student’s preparedness in a global economy, then we need to explore this connection in more detail. Is there really a connection?

Why is the perception of science education in the U.S. (and other countries as well) driven by rankings of students on international test score comparisons? The perception is that U.S. students are not competitive in the global market place because of their place in the rankings of the scores obtained on tests such as PISA and TIMSS. The same is true for many other countries.

Will the candidates examine the research related to the use of rankings based on test scores to make assessments about a country’s educational system, or the likelihood that its students are prepared to live in the 21st Century?

Iris C. Rotberg, Professor of Education Policy, George Washington University, has shown in her analysis of educational reforms on a global scale that most of the conclusions that we make based on international studies are not supported either by their findings or by research in general.

For example, the most visible conclusion that is made from the international studies is that “test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness.” Rotberg uses data from the World Economic Forum’s 2010 – 2011 global-competitiveness report to show that student test score rankings do not correlate with a nation’s economic competitiveness. For example, on the 2009 PISA international test, U.S. students do not rank in the top 10 member countries in any of these areas: Maths, Sciences, and Reading. The United States ranked 30 in maths, 23 in sciences, and 17 in reading.

Yet, in 2011, the United States was in 4th place in the rankings of 139 countries global competitiveness (dropping from the number 2 place from the last year). The comparisons are made across countries using 12 pillars of competitiveness, including basic requirements (institutions, infrastructure, etc.), efficiency enhancers (higher education, good market, labor market, financial market, etc.) and innovation and sophistication factors (business sophistication, innovation).

Indeed, if you look at the report, student achievement test scores or changes in student scores over time, are not part of the 12 pillars of competitiveness.

If our presidential and congressional candidates were to study the research by Rotberg they might conclude as she does that:

Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness. Continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness.

If American students are not well prepared in mathematics, science and technology, how do we account for America’s inventiveness. The National Science Foundation reports that the United States has consistently led the world in inventiveness as measured by the number of patents applied for between the period 1985 – 2005. and this seems to be continuing. The community of scientists in the United States has consistently produced thousands of peer-reviewed articles per year, and is only exceeded in this output by the European Union, which is composed of many nations. The United States also graduates more people with doctoral degrees than any other nation in science, science education and engineering. Furthermore, K-12 students fare very well on tests, and consistently show improvement over time, and with its peer group of industrialized nations, does very well.

The Imposing Role of the Federal Government

In my mind, the federal government’s role in local education, especially starting with theNCLB Act, and the Race to the Top Fund, and later flexibility requests has created a system of education that is overly hierarchical with rules to make the nation’s schools conform to an imposed set of standards and authoritarian assessments.

The accountability movement that now dominates our schools derives from an authority, and that authority is far from the classrooms of teachers who really know how to work with their students. Accountability in American schools is based on a conservative world-view, deriving its power from the top, then down to schools, classrooms, teachers and students. Success is defined by the authority with no advice from schools, teachers or parents. In general, the state is able to “raise the bar” on students over time. It’s as if the authority is mad at students (because of scores on international tests?), and punishes them by making it more difficult to pass the tests. Is this the kind of accountability that professional educators would choose?

The AFT at their annual convention in Detroit, unanimously approved a resolution against high-stakes testing. Last year the National Council of Teachers of English resolved to call for an end to high stakes testing. Professors in Chicago and in the state of Georgia, led by EmpowerED Georgia have written letters to government and education officials questioning the use of tests to evaluate teachers. Based on research in peer-reviewed journals, these professors have provided government and education officials with data and recommendations on the use of testing. Go slow, and pilot programs before they are imposed on the masses.

Test Score Trajectory: Are We Falling Behind?

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2009 and 2011 Assessments: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2012465.pdf Extracted July 29, 2012.

The latest data was reported this year by NAEP on how American students are doing in science. According to the Science 2011 report, average scores for eight-grade students was 2 points higher in 2011 than in 2009, which was significantly different. The only groups of students that didn’t show significant positive changes were the highest performing students. Maybe they topped out?

We have much better data for math and reading. Long-term trend NAEP measures student performance in mathematics andreading every four years. The last report was in 2008. The next report will be in 2012.

Average reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds increased in 2008 compared to 1971, but the reading score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different. The national trend in mathematics showed that both 9- and 13-year-olds had higher average scores in 2008 than in any earlier assessment year. For 17-year-olds, there were no significant differences between the average score in 2008 and those in 1973 or 2004.

Main NAEP assessments measure student performance in mathematics and reading every two years, most recently in 2011, and then in 2013. Other subjects, such as science, writing, and more, are also assessed.

Although science is not part of the “long-term trend” NAEP testing, NAEP does have data that show trends in science achievement. According to NAEP, the trends in science are characterized by declines in the 1970, followed by increases during the 1980s and early 1990s, and mostly stable performance since then. Science (and math) scores have NOT been falling in U.S. schools. And the data shows that the achievement gap between white and black students is narrowing, but at the level that is acceptable to many.

Are we falling behind?

It is very convenient for some groups to make the claim that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science. But the evidence is that student learning in science, mathematics and reading has either improved or remained stable over the past thirty years, and during that time the achievements in science and technology have been breathtaking.

American mathematics and teachers are by nature inventive, and readily solve problems in their classrooms every day. If anything is in teachers’ ways of continuing creative and innovative teaching, it is rules imposed by NCLB on our schools. The requirements lessen the opportunity for learning. On this blog, we have cited peer-reviewed research that indicates that the high-stakes testing, and authoritarian standards impedes learning, and prevents teachers from doing what they are prepared to do, and that is help students uncover their love of mathematics and science.

Are we falling behind?

In mathematics, the only country of similar size and demographics that scored higher than the U.S. was Canada. Most of the other countries that did score significantly higher were small European or Asian (Korea, Japan) countries. The U.S. score was above the average score of OECD countries. Although there were 12 countries that scored significantly higher, there were only three that are similar to the U.S. in size and demographics. We are not ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. (source: PISA Data 2009)

Are we falling behind?

America’s top students’ performance place near the top of all students tested by PISA. For example Dr. Gerold Tirozzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary Schools, analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty, as measured by the percentage of students receiving government free or reduced lunches. For example, Tirozzi found that in schools where less than 10% of the students get a free lunch, the reading score would place them number 2 in the ranking of countries.

What role should the federal government play in improving science and mathematic? President Obama partially answered this question. Here is what he said in this year’s State of the Union address:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making. (Emphasis mine).

For Obama to say that teachers should teach with creativity, and stop teaching to the test is a remarkable statement give how the Department of Education is advocating high-stakes tests based on a common set of standards. Many researchers would argue that continuing to use high-stakes tests will not result in teachers not teaching to the test. Until high-stakes tests are banned from being used to make decisions about student learning and teacher performance, we will continue to be immobilized.

Obama should reach back to his earlier work in Chicago where he will find the paradigm that will be advance education in ways that I’ve urged in this post. In his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama discussed his desire to become involved with the Chicago Public Schools.

Obama and his colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced them to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school.

In his office, which was decorated with African themes, Obama discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of this short meeting with Mr. Moran, Obama was clearly told that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered Obama his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of progressive teaching. Most teachers know and try and act on this philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state departments of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind.

For science and mathematics education to flourish, teachers need to be set free to work as professionals in their schools. They are quite able to interpret professional standards in mathematics and science, and do not need to be held to a “Common” set of standards that all students are expected to meet.

What do you think? Are American students falling behind the rest of the world in science and mathematics?

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The Art of Teaching Science

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and...