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National Math and Science Scores Improve

July/August 1996

Students today are doing better in math and science than students of two decades ago, according to a recently published NSF report, Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education, 1995.

The conclusions prompted cautious optimism from NSF's Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources (EHR). "The vital signs aren't peaking yet, but the recovery process is underway," says Luther Williams.

Released during NSF's National Science & Technology Week in April, the report details the advances made in science and math education by American schools since 1977, and identifies existing challenges.

The report focuses on two themes: excellence--the extent to which high learning standards are attained; and equity--the extent to which these standards are applied to all students.

Excellence is being achieved, the report concludes. This is based on findings such as:

  • Elementary schools are devoting more time than ever to science and math instruction.

  • More students are taking advanced placement courses.

  • More students, regardless of race and ethnic background, are completing math and science courses.

  • Achievement scores are rising.

However, equity among different ethnic and racial groups of students is still a challenge. Despite improving test scores for all groups, achievement gaps among whites, Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups remains wide.

The report states that these problems are due, in part, to unequal distribution of resources including school equipment and numbers of teachers. Also, school districts' commitment to implementing reforms has been inconsistent.

The report is an indication, however, that recent systemic reforms have been working, even though negative influences--such as drug use, discipline problems, and poverty--remain high.

NSF recommendations involve continuing emphasis on reform at all levels of education, but primarily elementary school where students learn the basics of scientific investigation. NSF's reform suggestions include:

  • Continue curricular reform where students master scientific processes instead of memorizing formulas.

  • Change the learning environment to emphasize hands-on experiments.

  • Assess reforms using tests that measure students' ability to reason, solve problems and use scientific principles.

Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education 1995 is available on the NSF Web site: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1996/nsf9652/start.htm.

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