— -- If there were a math-and-science Olympics for elementary and middle schoolers, USA students could hold their heads high — they're consistently better than average. In math, it turns out, they're improving substantially, even as a few powerhouse nations see their scores drop.
But at the end of the day, the USA never quite makes it to the medal podium, a dilemma that has educators and policymakers divided, with some saying factors outside school play a key role in both achievement and productivity in general.
For the first time since 2003, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, a battery of international math and science tests among dozens of nations, are out — and they paint a somewhat mixed picture of achievement: On the one hand, the USA ranks consistently above international averages in both subjects.
On the other hand, several nations consistently outscore our fourth- and eighth-graders, with a few countries turning in eye-popping performances.
And while our students' math scores have risen, science scores have virtually stagnated since the mid-1990s — even as educators and policymakers have pushed for greater investments in science and engineering.
"It's discouraging," says Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. He says educators have known about the flat scores for years and there's been no progress.
"Other countries are investing and we can see their progress," he says. "Do we want to be average?"
The new scores, from 2007, looked at performance for 36 countries in fourth grade and 48 countries at eighth grade.
A few results:
•In math, USA fourth-graders scored 529, above the international average of 500 and on par with Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others — but below Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Russia and England.
•The fourth-grade math score is up 11 points from 2003, a statistically significant difference and the first time the scores have changed since 1995.
•A handful of other nations — among them England, Hong Kong, Slovenia and Latvia — have seen much bigger improvements in math, with score jumps as high as 57 points since 1995. The USA's 11-point jump is on par with that of Singapore and Iran, but much better than several nations that saw their scores drop — in the Czech Republic, for instance, fourth-grade math scores fell 54 points.
•USA eighth-graders also scored above average in math, comparable to students in Hungary, England, Russia and the Czech Republic, among others, but below several Asian nations. Their scores are up 16 points from 1995.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education Committee, welcomes the "significant gains" in math, but says it's "troubling that our students are still behind their international peers in both math and science — fields that are key to our nation's economic vitality and competitiveness. It's increasingly clear that building a world-class education system that provides students with a strong foundation in math and science must be part of any meaningful long-term economic recovery strategy."
In science, the story is similar, if a bit less improved:
•USA fourth-graders scored 549, well above the international average of 500, but below a few Asian nations — Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan. Eighth-graders scored 520, similarly above average but below a handful of other nations.
•USA science scores, unlike math scores, have remained flat for 12 years, while a few other nations have seen 50- to 60-point gains.
Others, though, have seen their scores plummet since 1995.
Brookings Institution researcher Tom Loveless says the new scores belie complaints that USA students are lagging behind the rest of the world in math.
"It's just not true," he says. "It hasn't been true for a long time."
The congressionally appointed National Math Panel recently called for sweeping changes in how schools teach math, pushing for a greater emphasis on algebra and higher-order problem solving. Loveless, a member of the panel, says the changes would go a long way toward improving our international ranking. "We're making progress, but we're several decades from being first in the world," he says.