New Analysis Shifts View of U.S. Students’ Science Performance Compared with Other Countries, Offers Clues to Differences

U.S. Students Show Steady Decline from Grade 4 to Grade 8 to Grade 10

Digging Below the Numbers, Study Finds Links to Math, Classroom Teaching Method

Washington, D.C. – Shattering the myth that U.S. students score substantially above other countries in science in 4th and 8th grades, but then fall precipitously to below average in the 10th grade, a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) shows there is actually a steady decline, not a sudden drop, in performance as students progress through school. Comparing the U.S. to 12 similar industrialized countries, the report also offers clues to what may lead to the differences and declines.

All three major international assessments in science and math were given in 2003, an event that occurs only once every 12 years and offers a rare opportunity to compare performance by countries across grade levels. However, the findings align closely with, and help to explain, the science performance reported on the recently released 2005 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Science Study. The AIR study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

This new report recalculates U.S. students’ international performance by comparing only industrialized countries that participated in each assessment, something not done when the findings were originally reported. And it produced a significantly different view of U.S. results.

In the original reporting, looking at the entire, but not common, pool of countries, U.S. students have been reported as scoring 6th among 25 countries at grade 4, 9th among 45 countries at grade 8 and then falling to 22nd among 40 countries at grade 10. However, among the 12 industrialized countries participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 4th and 8th grade students, U.S. students ranked third in 4th grade and fifth in 8th grade in science assessments. A different test for 10th grade students, PISA, found that by age 15, U.S. students dropped to 9th in science assessments. Thus the decline in science performance relative to international competitors is steady and there is not a sudden fall off at high school.

“We wanted to look at how our next generation compares with only other industrialized nations that represent U.S. economic competitors,” said Steven Leinwand a principal research analyst with AIR and one of the authors of the report. “And, then we wanted to look at why these differences exist to offer some suggestions for changes that might enable our education system to better prepare our students to compete in the coming decades.”

View the report: Lessons Learned from U.S International Science Performance.

The international comparisons also offer a chance to look at different educational systems, policies and societal norms that may offer a hint of explanation to why the scores differ by grade and across grades.

Math Instruction May Be Key
In a prior AIR analysis of math performance in industrialized countries , U.S. students consistently ranked below average – eighth among 4th graders and ninth among both 8th and 10th graders. In that report, as math scores fell, so did science scores. Conversely, Australia and New Zealand both showed significant improvement in mathematics rankings over these years as well as their science rankings. Two of the reasons for this may be that science becomes more math-based in later grades and some countries focus more on establishing math fundamentals in earlier grades than in the U.S.

“In elementary grades in the U.S. science tends to involve primarily factual recall, but as students progress, they need to employ more mathematics to understand and explain science concepts,” explained Leinwand. “When we look at Japan, whose students consistently rank very high in math and science, we see that they don’t even begin science instruction until third grade, instead focusing on a strong math foundation.”

U.S. Students Science Scores Vary By Discipline, As Do Their Teachers
The TIMSS results differentiated among different science disciplines, revealing that U.S. 4th graders performed equally among life science, physical science and earth science. In the 8th grade, as science knowledge deepens, U.S. students perform relatively better in biology and environmental science and relatively poorer in chemistry and physics.

“Again, when looking at the different disciplines, we see U.S. students performing more poorly on the sciences that are heavily influenced by math,” said Leinwand. “The other thing we found is that where U.S. students perform better, there tend to be more science teachers with related science degrees, like biology.”

While the study found no strong link between student performance and their teachers’ science preparation, it did uncover a link by discipline. For instance, among U.S. teachers with science preparation, biology dominates with 79 percent majoring in biology, while only 24 percent have a physics major.

Depth May Be More Important than Breadth in Science
As part of this study, U.S. science curriculum represented by the National Science Education Standards was compared to curriculum in Japan and Australia, two high performing countries. A number of differences were found, including: the percentage of science topics a country intends to teach is negatively related to its science performance.

“Building on earlier research, we are again seeing that the U.S. approach to cover a lot of science topics instead of covering fewer topics in depth may be hurting our students’ ability to understand more science concepts,” said Leinwand. “For example, we considered how electricity is taught in Japan, Australia and the U.S. While Japan and Australia build up the properties and uses of electricity, its relationship to magnetism and the essential characteristics of simple electrical circuits, the U.S. treatment is superficial and fails to really explain the basics.”

About AIR

Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is an independent, nonpartisan not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research on important social issues and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity.


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