Washington American students performed a little better on the latest round of global science and math tests, but still lag behind students in nearly half the countries that gave the uniform quiz including Australia, Canada and several European and Asian nations.
Although U.S. eighth-graders in 1999 tested better than eighth-graders four years earlier, American children appeared to decline in comparison to foreign students as they moved through the school system. Fourth-graders from 1995 scored above the average of other nations tested; eighth-graders last year scored below that average.
The report showed prosperous Asian nations such as Japan and Singapore topping most categories over wealthy nations on other continents. Developed countries stagnated on boosting the share of students that reached top levels, the scores indicated.
A report of the testing describes three sets of math and science results: Average scores of eighth-grade-level students tested in 38 nations in 1999; scores from 23 nations that tested middle-schoolers in 1995 and 1999; and scores from the 17 countries that tested fourth-graders in 1995 and eighth-graders in 1999.
Education officials around the globe reacted Tuesday.
"The study shows a certain tiredness of school systems in developed countries, whereas schools in emerging countries are more lively," said Benedetto Vertecchi, head of the institute that conducted the research in Italy.
Lamented Indonesian education official Herwindo Haribowo: "We used to be better than the Vietnamese, but now they have overtaken us."
Explained England schools minister Estelle Morris: "The fact is that until 1998 too many of our primary schools did not teach maths well and teachers were not comfortable with the teaching of maths."
Promising to do better, the Clinton administration focused on the gains posted by U.S. eighth-graders from 1995 to 1999.
"There is a new mood about education in America," said Education Secretary Richard Riley. "... Everything I've seen tells me the American people are rising to the challenge."
But U.S. business and education leaders criticized what they consider a lack of follow-through on plans developed after the 1995 tests.
"We've gotten the message. We just haven't taken it to the classroom level," said Christopher Cross of the Council on Basic Education, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.
"The rest of the world will not stand still while we work to implement these reforms," said Edward B. Rust Jr., chief executive officer of State Farm Insurance. He heads a group of U.S. business leaders interested in education.
"We have a long way to go to be internationally competitive," said Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., retiring chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
U.S. test-takers in 1999 were bested by English-speaking nations Canada and Australia, Taiwan, the Flemish part of Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Singapore, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. Eight nations did about the same as the United States, and American children did better than those in 17 other countries.
With the average performance for all of the nations set around 500, math scores ranged from 604 in Singapore to 275 in South Africa; science scores ranged from 569 in Taiwan to 243 in South Africa. The U.S. score was 502 in math; 515 in science.
Comparable U.S. scores in the 1995 test were 492 for math, 513 for science.
The International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement organized the testing that was funded and conducted by individual education authorities. The study on the test results, called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat, cost an estimated $50 million, financed by the World Bank and participating governments.
France and Germany were the only major industrialized nations that didn't participate. The tests, which all nations were invited to give, drew three African countries, Middle Eastern states including Jordan and Iran, several Eastern European countries and a lone South American nation, Chile.
Students were tested on algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry and other topics they would have been expected to have covered at their grade level.
Questions were translated into each country's language. Some questions went well beyond simple math and science knowledge, requiring detailed calculations or explanations.
Researchers asked children and teachers about homework, lessons, study habits and teacher credentials. U.S. children spent more time on computers and using tools like calculators and workbooks than their peers elsewhere. At the same time, they did less homework. The U.S. students also were less likely to be taught by science and math teachers with advanced degrees in those subjects.
"We cannot expect to lead the world in math and science if our geometry students are being taught by history teachers," Riley said.
The U.S. Department of Education, which funded and administered the American tests with the National Science Foundation, cautioned against comparisons.
"American students continue to learn," Riley said, "but their peers in some other nations have been learning at a faster rate."