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What Do Low U.S. Math And Science Scores Mean?

Reprinted from the Dec. 7, 2007 edition of National Journal's Technology Daily

Draft Bill Spurs Talk About Trade-Related Job Aid
By Aliya Sternstein

The higher education community is divided on how much weight should be given to a report issued Tuesday that found U.S. high-school students overall are performing below average in science. But many concur that low U.S. test scores are largely due to the country's failure in reaching out to its underclass and immigrant population.

The United States ranked 21st on an international survey of 15-year-olds' knowledge and skills in science, known as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

University of Washington Computer Science Professor Ed Lazowska, a former co-chair of the now-defunct President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, said the report "once again clearly indicates the performance of U.S. secondary students in science and mathematics lags that of our competitor nations."

He said the results should effectively counter a widely publicized October Urban Institute report that claimed the United States, contrary to other recent reports, is not falling behind in science and math education.

Lazowska acknowledged performance gaps among segments of the U.S. student population. While "the best-prepared students in America are equal to the best in the world," he said, "a greater and greater proportion of America's students are not being prepared at this level and are not being equipped for success."

But former tech executive Vivek Wadhwa, now a Harvard University fellow and Duke University executive-in-residence, said he has become skeptical of conclusions like PISA's. "Countries like Japan, Hong Kong and New Zealand that we keep comparing ourselves to have homogenous populations and few low-skilled immigrants," he said. "So comparing our diverse population to theirs is meaningless."

Wadhwa sides with the Urban Institute study, which stated: "The test results indicate that, rather than a policy focus on average science and math scores, there is an urgent need for targeted educational improvement to serve low-performing populations."

Of the PISA findings, Wadhwa said the "most relevant take-away is that we don't provide equal education to minorities and unskilled immigrants."

According to PISA, U.S. students with an immigrant background, which represent 15 percent of those surveyed, trail considerably. In the other countries, an average of 9.3 percent of students had immigrant backgrounds. Also, the performance differences among U.S. schools largely can be attributed to socioeconomic factors, the results noted.

Norman Matloff said that the U.S. underclass, sadly, hurts the country's scores on "invalid" international comparisons like PISA.

"Let's get real here," he said. "India has a 40 percent illiteracy rate. It would score horribly [on PISA] if it were willing to participate. ... And yet they do produce good engineers anyway, in spite of their low averages."

Mona Wineburg, the teacher-education director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said PISA "is a well-respected measure of achievement, so I don't think we can ignore it." She added, "I don't think we're going to have a wide of range of people entering these fields if we don't do something about" math and science education.

Posted by Andrew on December 12, 2007 11:56 AM | Permalink


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