U.S. K–12 Education

Concern about the relationship of science and mathematics achievement to American global competitiveness, workforce preparation, and development of an educated citizenry has drawn intensive public scrutiny to the achievement levels of American students in mathematics and science in recent years.

Mathematics and science performance of U.S. students: both disappointing and encouraging.

The current performance of U.S. elementary and secondary students in mathematics and science is both disappointing and encouraging. A national study that followed the same student cohort found that students from different demographic groups entered kindergarten with varied mathematics knowledge and skills, that all groups made gains during elementary school, and that gains were uneven. Thus most mathematics achievement gaps remained or had grown by the time students reached grade 5 (table O-9 table. and appendix table 1-2Table.). A second national cohort study that assessed mathematics knowledge in both grades 10 and 12 mirrored the findings of the previous study.

Repeated cross-sectional studies of mathematics and science performance provide information about trends in the performance of different student cohorts. In 2005, students in grades 4 and 8 posted higher mathematics scores than students in those same grades in 1990 (figure O-54figure.). This trend was evident for both males and females, across racial/ethnic and income groups, and for students in different performance ranges (table O-10 table.). In science, average scores increased for fourth grade students, largely reflecting improvements among lower- and middle-performing students; held steady for eighth graders; but declined for 12th graders between 1996 (the first year the assessments were given) and 2005 (table O-11 table.). The latest (2007) assessment results for mathematics and science show continuing improvement for students in grades 4 and 8.

International assessments offer a mixed picture.

In the 2003 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which sought to measure mastery of curriculum-based knowledge and skills, U.S. students in the lower and middle grades performed above the international average of the mixture of developed and developing countries in which the test was administered (figure O-55figure.). Performance scores for U.S. eighth graders in mathematics and science were improved over those in the 1995 TIMSS, but scores for fourth graders showed no change.

However, U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the international average in both mathematics and science on the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which were intended to measure students' ability to apply scientific and mathematical concepts and skills to problems they might encounter outside the classroom (figure O-55figure.). The PISA averages are based on scores from 30 industrialized OECD member countries.

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