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U.S. Math And Science Scores Indicate Mediocrity

August 25, 1998
Penn State
Penn State researchers think they know what is behind Johnny's and Janey's inability to do science and math, but Americans may not wish to make the changes that could improve performance.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--Penn State researchers think they know what is behind Johnny's and Janey's inability to do science and math, but Americans may not wish to make the changes that could improve performance.

"U.S. students, in general, show a drop in international rankings in math and science between the fourth and eight grades, which many educators and members of the press have called a slump," says Dr. Gerald K LeTendre, assistant professor of education. "Our studies indicate that this is not really a slump, but simply a continuation of low gains from year to year."

The researchers who include LeTendre; Dr. David P. Baker, professor of education and sociology; Dr. Suet-Ling Pong, associate professor of education and sociology, and Martin Benavides and Zhang Yu, doctoral students in education policy studies, are investigating the very large database of information collected by the Third International Math and Science Study.

"The initial reaction to our drop in ranking is to assume that our middle schools are at fault," says LeTendre. "But no one has looked at the overall trends," he told attendees today (Aug. 22) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

"Most countries do not move up or down in ranking from fourth to eighth to 12th grade," says Baker. "The U.S. is one of the few that does."

The United States starts above the mean in fourth grade science and is at the mean in eighth grade. In math, we are again above the mean in fourth grade but below the mean by eighth grade. The researchers agree that on the surface this has all the indications of a slump. However, the survey sampled third and fourth grades and a grade comparison shows that the U.S. is already losing ground in third grade.

"Low gains between third and fourth, indicate this is not a middle school problem and it is not a slump, but indicative of a system-wide low level of achievement," says LeTendre.

The researchers note that it is not high performance in other countries that pushes U.S. scores down, but something the United States is doing, or not doing, in our education systems to create this mediocrity.

Sociologists of education have observed that known since the early 1900s educational systems in countries have become extremely similar over time, but little is known about how this might influence achievement cross-nationally. Our performances in math and science should all be similar, however, they are not.

"There is not going to be some magic cure for U.S. education," says Baker. "There is not one major thing that others are doing that we are not doing that will solve this problem. Rather, it is probably a combination of more subtle organizational factors."

One issue looked at by the researchers is the opportunity to learn -- the students' access to material in the curriculum. In the U.S., subjects covered in one grade are often again covered in another grade, taking away time from new concepts. Other countries have much tighter upward spirals in learning, only repeating the minimum. Quality of teaching and quality of teachers are other areas of concern.

Fixing what is wrong with the U.S. school system, however, could be problematic, say the researchers. The American system allows curriculum decisions on the classroom level, a close parent teacher partnership and employs teachers trained at universities in a wide variety of subjects besides teaching and their specialties. Other countries, however, have much tighter control over schools and teachers.

The American public is unlikely to accept a system like Singapore's, the number one country in the math and science rankings. There, teachers all receive exactly the same rigid training, school curriculums are uniform and the training institutes assign teachers to schools. Local and parental input to schools are nonexistent.

"We like having 16,000 individual school districts and allowing parents to have input into what their children learn," says Baker. "Our solution must take American sensibilities into consideration and realize that there are costs in more than dollars for all reforms."

The researchers agree that no one area of the U.S. educational system is at fault but that all aspects -- curriculum, teaching, parent interaction and Standards -- need to be considered.

The outlook is not totally grim. While U.S. 12th grade students were near the bottom in science, Minnesota fourth graders were the best in science worldwide. Even though U.S. rankings were not high, overall differences between the 40 countries in the survey were not great.

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Penn State. "U.S. Math And Science Scores Indicate Mediocrity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 August 1998. <>.
Penn State. (1998, August 25). U.S. Math And Science Scores Indicate Mediocrity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 20, 2017 from
Penn State. "U.S. Math And Science Scores Indicate Mediocrity." ScienceDaily. (accessed February 20, 2017).