Top U.S. Students Lag in Math and Science

U.S. high school seniors have flunked the latest international science survey. The students performed near the bottom in general science literacy, were second to last in advanced mathematics, and brought up the rear in advanced physics. The results, released today, "debunk the myth that our best and brightest are still the best in the world," says Larry Suter of the U.S. National Science Foundation's education directorate. "There is no evidence here that any of that is true."

The new survey, called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), is the third installment of a series of international assessments of student performance.. Previous results from elementary students and middle schoolers showed Singapore, Japan, and Korea out front (Science, 22 November 1996, p. 1296 and 13 June 1997, p. 1642). Asian countries did not participate in the latest test, however, citing the intense pressure on their students in the senior year to prepare for college entrance exams.

The Netherlands and Sweden scored highest on the assessment of general mathematics and science literacy, which included questions on basic algebra, life science, and physical science. France and the Russian Federation outpaced 14 other countries on the advanced mathematics test [taken by students in precalculus, calculus, or advanced placement (AP) calculus in the United States]. And top honors on the advanced physics exam (taken by physics or AP physics students in the United States) were shared by Norway, Sweden, and the Russian Federation.

For U.S. officials, the results reinforce the unhappy lessons of the earlier surveys. A recent analysis of the elementary and middle school results shows that U.S. students tend to decline in almost all subject areas between the fourth and eighth grades. As a result, says William Schmidt of Michigan State University in East Lansing, head of the TIMSS project in the United States, "you have to do remarkable work at the high school level to make up for that."

* The full report, including sample problems, is available at