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FOR RELEASE: Embargoed until 11 a.m. EST February 24, 1998

Responding to results of an international study, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley today said America must dramatically accelerate and fundamentally change its efforts to improve math and science achievement for its students to rank among the top performing students internationally.

According to the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), released today by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), U.S. 12th graders outperformed only two (Cyprus and South Africa) of the 21 participating countries in math and science. Asian countries chose not to participate in the TIMSS 12th-grade study.

U.S. students' scores in science were not significantly different from those of seven other countries, including Italy, Germany, France and the Russian Federation; in math their scores were similar to those of four other countries, including Italy and the Russian Federation.

"This is unacceptable, and it absolutely confirms what the president and I have been saying, that academic standards must be raised dramatically across America," Riley said. "The standards of many state assessments in math are far lower than national and international standards of excellence; too many science and math teachers are teaching out-of-field; and far too few high school seniors have taken physics, trigonometry, calculus and advanced placement courses."

TIMSS also examined how U.S. advanced 12th-grade students -- in math, those studying precalculates and calculus, in science those studying physics -- performed in relation to advanced students in other nations. On the advanced math assessment, U.S. students were outperformed by those in 11 countries, were similar to those in four countries, and outperformed those in no participating countries. On the physics assessment, U.S. students were outperformed by those in 14 countries, were the same as those in one country, and outperformed those in no participating countries.

Earlier TIMSS results showed that the achievement of U.S. fourth-grade students is quite high -- above the international average in both math and science, and in science outperformed only by Korea. However, in the middle grades U.S. standing begins to lag and by eighth grade, U.S. students score only slightly above the international average in science and below the international average in math. "We need to have higher expectations for our students, Riley said. "Many of our students stop taking math and science after 10th or 11th grade. For example in the U.S., even among college bound high school seniors, 51 percent have not even taken four years of science. This research also shows that our high school curriculum and instruction has less rigor and depth than other nations and less focus on building understanding of major concepts.

"In addition, we don't build a firm foundation for our students in the middle school years. Other nations begin to introduce challenging concepts such as algebra, geometry, probability and statistics, but we continue to focus on arithmetic, even though our students are good at arithmetic. So we shouldn't be surprised that by the 12th grade, our students have fallen even further behind their counterparts abroad.

"How can we expect our students to test well in math and science internationally when we do not even ask them to take challenging courses and rigorous tests throughout their middle and high school careers."

Riley pointed out that the TIMSS tests set high standards. For example, a question for advanced physics assessment: A car moving at a constant speed with a siren sounding comes towards you and then passes by. Describe how the frequency of the sound you hear changes. (See attachment for additional sample questions.)

The international average was only 37 percent for answering that question correctly. But only 12 percent of U.S. advanced students could answer that question.

"We need to raise our expectations of our students if we want to be internationally competitive," Riley said. "Our 12th graders' low international ranking isn't the only cause for alarm here. If we're to continue to be global competitors in the new knowledge economy, we'll need a steady and competent pool of employees. Right now, the low performance of those in the pipeline for those future jobs has troubling implications for our future.

"This is further evidence of the value of a voluntary national math test at eighth grade. Parents, teachers, and students want to know whether students are meeting rigorous national and international standards. The proposed voluntary national tests will help teachers and parents identify what students know and can do and prepare them to take demanding high school math and science courses.

  "It would be highly inconsistent to decry the performance of a sample of U.S. students on this test and then turn around and deny parents the chance to see how their children would perform individually on a rigorous voluntary national test in math."

In addition, Riley said, "We know how important it is to build a strong foundation in math and science in the middle grades. That's why the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation are launching a joint effort to improve middle school math." President Clinton has requested $60 million in the fiscal year 1999 budget to improve the math teaching of elementary and middle school teachers, provide assistance to communities that wish to select and implement rigorous instructional materials, maximize the effective use of existing federal resources, and promote public understanding of the importance of challenging middle school math.

Riley also challenged local communities to look hard at what math and science they teach and how they teach it. "TIMSS shows that what we teach and how we teach it is what determines our students' achievement. Decisions about curriculum and teaching are local ones. I urge school boards, principals, parents and all those involved in education, as well as employers, to take a hard look at the decisions they are making and consider whether, based on TIMSS results, their schools are likely to boost significantly the achievement of their students.

"I also urge our students to take four years of challenging curriculum, including physics and calculus, by graduation. That's a huge charge, but it's needed to be internationally competitive."

Riley also noted that 28 percent of high-school math teachers and 18 percent of high- school science teachers neither majored nor minored in these subjects, and challenged states and communities to ensure that students are taught by teachers who are prepared to teach advanced math and science. In the physical sciences, where student performance lags the most, almost half of American students are taught by teachers without a major or minor in that field.

"In sheer quantitative terms, TIMSS is the world's largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous international education comparison ever," said U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics Pascal D. Forgione Jr.

The TIMSS consists of three parts: initial findings about math and science general knowledge for 21 participating countries; initial findings of advanced math and physics assessments for 16 countries; and initial findings about the relationships between school systems and students' lives and achievement.

Among the findings in Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context:

  • In all three areas of advanced math and in all five content areas of physics, U.S. advanced math and physics students' performance was among the lowest of the TIMSS nations;

  • On the assessment of math general knowledge, the U.S. score was 461. Hungary, Germany, Slovenia, Austria, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands had scores significantly higher average scores than the U.S. The highest score was 560 in the Netherlands;

  • On the assessment of science general knowledge, the U.S. average score average was 480. Denmark, Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, and Sweden, had significantly higher average scores than the U.S. The highest score was 559 in Sweden.

  • The U.S. was one of three countries which did not have a significant gender gap in math general knowledge among students at the end of secondary schooling. While there was a gender gap in science general knowledge in the U.S. as in every other TIMSS nation, the U.S. gender gap was one of the smallest;

This TIMSS report is the last of a series of three Pursuing Excellence reports. The first presented findings on student achievement at eighth grade. The second presented findings on fourth graders. The fourth- and eighth-grade reports are available on the department's web site at Next month printed copies of the new report will be available while they last from the National Library of Education, (202) 219-1692. The report also will be available from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Link To:
A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context (Report)
The Release of U.S. Report on Grade 12 Results From the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Commissioner's Remarks)

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