Elementary and Secondary Education
The quality of mathematics and science education in the United States has been an ongoing concern of scientists, engineers, and decisionmakers. Following World War II, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians expressed grave concerns in the Bush and Steelman reports about the quality of pre-college instruction in their fields as well as the number of students who go on to college and study these subjects. They saw the curriculum as badly out of date, too broad for teachers to masterlet alone studentsand instruction as too passive for children to develop a genuine understanding of the key concepts and ideas in their fields. The perception of a crisis in education was further created by the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and by the publication of international comparative studies of student achievement starting in the 1970s. Pre-college math and science education is today still a national, state, and local concern. The following highlights point out that some improvements have occurred on a national scale, but that these are not uniform. Additionally, international comparisons show that U.S. achievement is especially low at the end of secondary school, well below the international average.
U.S. Achievement Compared with Other Countries
- U.S. student achievement in mathematics and science compared least favorably with that of their peers in other countries at the end of high school, was at or above the international average in middle school, and was above the international average in elementary school in the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
- U.S. students in the final year of secondary school scored below the international average on assessments of general science and mathematics. On an assessment of general mathematics, students in 14 of 21 nations outperformed U.S. students, and on an assessment of general science, students in 11 of 21 countries outperformed U.S. students. The United States performed better than 2 countries, Cyprus and South Africa, in both subjects.
- U.S. 12th grade advanced science students performed below 14 of 16 countries on the TIMSS physics assessment. Advanced mathematics students scored below 11 of 16 countries on the advanced mathematics assessment. Advanced mathematics and science students did not outperform students in any country on either the physics or advanced mathematics assessment.
- Eighth grade U.S. science students performed above the 41-country international TIMSS average. They performed at the international average in chemistry and physics, and above average on life sciences, earth sciences, and environmental issues.
- Eighth grade U.S. mathematics students performed below the 41-country international average overall as well as in geometry, measurement, and proportionality.
- The science and mathematics performance of fourth grade students in the United States was among the highest of those countries participating in the TIMSS assessment at that level. In science, fourth grade students scored well above the international average for 26 countries overall as well as in the four content areas assessed. Fourth grade students scored above the international mean in mathematics overall and in all content areas except measurement.
National Trends in Achievement
- U.S. students in the 1990s were generally performing better in mathematics and science as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than did their counterparts in the late 1970s. The "benchmarks" selected for this report are scores on NAEP trends assessment of 200, 250, and 300, respectively, for ages 9, 13, and 17.
- The science and mathematics achievement of both male and female students has increased in the last two decades at all ages tested (9, 13, and 17).
- No significant difference in mathematics performance was observed between boys and girls at ages 9 and 13 between 1978 and 1996. Differences in mathematics performance for 17-year-old males and females were observed in NAEP between 1978 to 1986, but not between 1990 and 1996.
- No gender differences in mathematics were observed at any grade in the international assessment administered for the TIMSS.
- Gender differences in science achievement continue to exist in the 1996 NAEP for students at ages 13 and 17. Differences between boys and girls in science achievement in the United States were generally small compared with differences for students in other countries (TIMSS).
- The percentage of white, black, and Hispanic students that reached the benchmark levels of science achievement at ages 9, 13, and 17 increased between 1977 and 1996. The change was particularly noteworthy for 9-year-old black students, who increased by 25 percentage points over that period.
- White, black, and Hispanic students in the three age groups demonstrated upward trends for mathematics proficiency between 1978 and 1996. Differences in achievement levels of racial and ethnic groups persist, however.
Advanced Course Taking by High School Students
Curriculum and Instruction
Teachers and Teaching
Alternative Forms of Schooling
- Charter schools now serve approximately 170,000 students out of 48 million students in the United States. From school year 1992/93 to 1997/98, the number of charter schools increased from 2 (in Minnesota) to approximately 1,000 nationwide.
- More low-income students have access to privately funded vouchers and scholarships. In school year 1992/93, close to 4,100 low-income students in four urban districts received privately funded vouchers or scholarships to attend better schools. In school year 1996/97, approximately 11,000 low-income students in 28 urban districts received private scholarships.
- Increased numbers of parents are choosing to educate their children at home. Home schooling has increased from an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 nationwide in 1991/92 to approximately 700,000 to 750,000 in 1995/96.