US students in math doldrums?


BY BEN FELLER

FIFTEEN-year-olds in the United States don't have the math skills to match up to peers in many other industrialised nations, test scores released recently show. 

The latest international comparison shows US students scoring below the international average in total math literacy and in every specific area tested, from geometry and algebra to statistics and computation. 

Known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, the test measures math, reading and science literacy among 15-year-olds every three years. This time, the main focus was math. 

The test is run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based inter-governmental group of industrialised countries.  

Top math performers included Finland, Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and New Zealand. 

The test is not a measure of grade-level curriculum, but rather a cumulative gauge of skills learned inside and outside school – and how well students apply them to real-life problems.  

It also aims to give the United States an external reality check about how it is doing. 

Among 29 industrialised countries, the United States scored below 20 nations and above five in math. The US performance was about the same as Poland, Hungary and Spain. 

When compared with all 39 nations that produced scores, the United States was below 23 countries, above 11 and about the same as four others, with Latvia joining the middle group. 

“If we want to be competitive, we have some mountains to climb,'' Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said at a news conference on Monday.  

“The good news is, we know that. This report goes into great detail to give us the facts. The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?'' 

Compared with peers from the OECD countries, even the highest US achievers were outperformed. 

US scores held steady from 2000 to 2003 in the two math subject areas tested in both years. But both times, about two-thirds of the major industrialised countries did better. 

Less clear is why, officials acknowledged. 

Hickok cited two likely factors – insufficient qualifications and knowledge among many US math teachers, and not enough effort to engage students in math at an early age. 

Private researchers and the federal government will help reveal some underlying lessons for the United States by doing more analysis of the numbers, said Robert Lerner, commissioner of the Education Department's National Centre for Education Statistics. 

Hickok used the report to promote President George W. Bush's education agenda, which includes more state testing and tougher school accountability in the high school grades. That would mean an expansion of the No Child Left Behind law Bush signed in 2002, which requires yearly progress among all groups of students and largely focuses on elementary and middle school children. 

By targeting students who are 15, the international test gauges students near the end of their mandatory schooling. US students this age are typically in grade nine or 10. 

The United States has the right intention of trying to raise achievement among all students, not just average scores, said Barry McGaw, education director of the OECD. 

“The crucial question, of course, is whether the intention is going to be realised,'' McGaw said at the news conference. – AP  

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