— -- 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.