America's Science and Math Gap

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Still falling behind

Five years ago, American educators got some great news: The nation’s fourth-graders were responding remarkably well to new teaching techniques — their scores on an international standardized test in science and math topping many those of students in most other industrialized nations.

This year, those educators anxiously awaited the results of an updated study, tracking the progress of the same students through the eighth grade. They were hopeful the improvement would hold steady — after all, they’d implemented many of the reforms traced to the ’95 numbers.

Unfortunately, their high hopes were dashed.

Over the years, scores dropped

It turns out the same group of students fared considerably worse on similar, grade-appropriate performance tests in 1999, losing their berth as international leaders in science, and slipping well below average on math examinations. Students in Singapore, Russia, Hungary and Australia all scored better than did their American peers, while pupils in Iran, Macedonia and Chile fared worse.

These results, as Richard Riley, the outgoing secretary of education, told the New York Times, show that "American children continue to learn — but their peers in other countries are learning at a higher rate." Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, maintains the results simply indicate a need to look deeper for solutions to the international math and science gap. According to the Times, however, Colwell does admit she finds the recent study "a little depressing."

Introducing subjects at an earlier age?

That’s probably an artful understatement, considering the efforts of so many educators who’ve committed themselves to improving test scores. But it may not be simply a matter of extra effort — some education experts who’ve examined the study’s results worry it’s not enough for teachers to work hard. School districts, some suggest, should only hire educators who majored in their teaching subject in college, or restricting certain positions to those with advanced degrees — a practice common in many of the higher-scoring nations.

It’s not just about the teachers, of course. There’s also the issue of "under-challenging" American students, or withholding complicated subject matter until students reach the so-called "appropriate" age. Some experts speculate there may be great benefit to introducing advanced subjects like geometry, chemistry and physics before high school — giving students ample time to become familiar with the topic, and, teachers hope, establish something resembling a comfort level with difficult concepts.