U.S. Middle Schoolers Still Middling

Eighth graders from the United States are still running in the middle of the global pack when it comes to science and math achievement, according to the latest survey. Asian nations continue to lead the way, with Singapore and Taiwan emerging as the star performers among the 38 participating countries. The news isn't good for U.S. educators, who have spent much of the decade pursuing reforms aimed at raising student achievement: Today's eighth graders look pretty much like the ones tested in 1995 (Science, 22 November 1996, p. 1296), and they've lost ground compared to when they were in fourth grade.

Starting in 1996, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) issued three reports, on fourth, eighth, and 12th graders. The new findings, called TIMSS-R (for repeat), provide longitudinal data that allow countries to measure their progress over time.

U.S. students didn't do so well. Compared with the 16 other countries that were in TIMSS both years, the U.S. cohort is the only country to show a "significant drop" in both science and math achievement as its students mature. Whereas in 1995 U.S. fourth graders tied with Austria for third place in science and were above average in math, they had slipped to below average in both subjects by the time they reached eighth grade.

"It just shows that other countries do a lot better job of educating their students between elementary school and middle school than we do," says Larry Suter of the National Science Foundation. The 19th-place ranking in science comes despite the fact that U.S. teachers say they are teaching more concepts in biological and physical sciences than their international peers.

Technology didn't seem to make much difference in students' scores. Most students in Hong Kong, which ranked fourth, use calculators, for example, but calculators are rare in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Around the world, the study found that computers are also not major pedagogical tools. One-quarter of students have Internet access, but fewer than half of them use it for class work in math or science. U.S. educators may get a better idea of what works and what doesn't in April, when the TIMSS-R results broken down by two dozen states and districts are released.

With reporting by Michael Baker in Seoul.

Related sites
The TIMSS-R report