Wednesday, December 06, 2000

U.S. math scores change little

12 other nations finish higher on test

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's a wake-up call, Tristate teachers say of a report that eighth-graders scored only average on the latest round of international math and science tests, lagging behind children in industrialized Asian and European nations.

        Despite four years of attempts to strengthen American performance, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report released Tuesday shows little improvement for middle-schoolers from the first set of uniform tests in 1995.

[photo] Pam Roehling helps Jeremy Hablutzel, 14, an eighth-grader at White Oak Middle School, with his math.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        “It ought to be some sort of red flag and cause for concern,” said Steve Phelps, who has taught eighth-grade math for nine years and now teaches 10th-grade geometry at Madeira Senior High.

        “It ought to make teachers pause and ask themselves what they're doing. It ought to make parents ask what school districts are doing, and it ought to make school districts ask themselves what they're doing.”

        Across town, Pam Roehling, chair of the White Oak Middle School math department, was disappointed by the test results.

        “I had hoped we had improved a little bit more, but obviously, we didn't, or we improved the same as everybody else did,” she said. “I think we should take it very seriously.”

        In 1999 math and science tests, a dozen of the 38 nations participating in the study outperformed the United States. They are: Australia, the Flemish (Dutch) part of Belgium, Canada, Taiwan, Finland, Hungary, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Singapore, Slovakia and Slovenia.

    Here are sample questions from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study:

    1. Science/Chemistry:
    Paint applied to an iron surface prevents the iron from rusting. Which ONE of the following provides the best reason?
    (A) It prevents nitrogen from coming in contact with the iron.
    (B) It reacts chemically with the iron.
    (C) It prevents carbon dioxide from coming in contact with the iron.
    (D) It makes the surface of the iron smoother.
    (E) It prevents oxygen and moisture from coming in contact with the iron.

    2. Science/Environmental and resources issues:
    Insecticides are used to control insect populations so that they do not destroy the crops. Over time, some insecticides become less effective at killing insects, and new insecticides must be developed. What is the most likely reason insecticides become less effective over time?
    (A) Surviving insects have learned to include insecticides as a food source.
    (B) Surviving insects pass their resistance to insecticides to their offspring.
    (C) Insecticides build up in the soil.
    (D) Insecticides are concentrated at the bottom of the food chain.

    3. Math/Fractions and Number Sense:
    The sum 691 + 208 is closest to the sum
    (A) 600+200
    (B) 700+200
    (C) 700+300
    (D) 900+200

    4. Math/Geometry:
    In a quadrilateral, each of the two angles has a measure of 115 degrees. If the measure of a third angle is 70 degrees, what is the measure of the remaining angle?
    (A) 60 degrees
    (B) 70 degrees
    (C) 130 degrees
    (D) 140 degrees
    (E) None of the above

    1. (E) U.S. percentage correct: 66. International average: 67
    2. (B) U.S. percentage correct: 62 percent. International average: 48 percent.
    3. (B) U.S. percentage correct: 93. International average: 80.
    4. (A) U.S. percentage correct: 19. International average: 40

        With average national performance set around 500, math scores ranged from 604 in Singapore to 275 in South Africa; science scores ranged from 569 in Taiwan to 243 in South Africa. The U.S. scores were 502 in math and 515 in science. France and Germany were the only major industrialized nations that didn't participate.

        Tristate teachers think differences in education systems among countries play a part in test results.

        While Brenda Shafer, a science teacher at Gray Middle School in Union, Ky., doesn't like to see the United States rank below other countries, she said it's difficult to learn anything from international tests.

        There are a lot of unknown variables, such as test format and the selection of students, she said. “Every country has their own needs and expectations.”

        Other teachers agreed.

        “I think we need to look at it from the perspective of what schools in our country aim to do and what schools in other countries aim to do,” Ms. Roehling said. “Our education system is designed so that we're going to educate all.”

        The tests are organized by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achieve ment and conducted by individual education authorities. More than 100,000 children, including 9,072 from the United States, were picked randomly from each nation's eighth-graders or the national equivalent.

        Test questions covered algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry and other topics that children would have been expected to have covered at their grade level.

        U.S. Education Department officials, who funded and administered the U.S. tests, cautioned against comparisons.

        “It would be incorrect to assume no learning is taking place,” said department researcher Patrick Gonzales. The scores “could indicate a pace of change in other nations that is significantly faster.”

        At White Oak Middle School, two students had differing reactions to the report.

        “It kind of shocks me,” said Heather McAlpin, 13, an eighth-grader. “You'd think kids would understand it better.”

        Seventh-grader Alex Young was not as surprised. “I knew we were behind places like Japan because, I guess, we're more lazy,” the 13-year-old said.

        The learning preferences of the two students in math, for example, show the challenges ahead for teachers. Heather would rather learn math with a hands-on approach. Alex prefers lectures and review.

        Their teacher, Ms. Roehling, uses a combination of both to boost learning. “There's been a push for years on hands-on, but if you don't bring it all together and show how it all fits in, it's not going to do you any good,” she said.

        Math and science scores can improve, she said, with more professional development for teachers and changes in textbooks to include more integrated learning. Students, she said, need to see the connections and applications to daily life.

        “Some accountability needs to go home, too,” Ms. Roehling said. “Parents need to emphasize math and science instead of saying, "I was never good at that. It's OK if my child isn't good at that.'”

        Math and science middle school instruction has made significant strides in recent years, as middle schools have gotten more attention nationally, said Ms. Shafer, the Gray Middle School teacher.

        Boone County middle schools are working to improve their science instruction, bringing in an outside research team to review their programs and make suggestions.

        However, elementary schools often don't place enough emphasis on math and science, leaving students unprepared for middle school curricula, said Ann Wolfzorn, a science teacher at Tichenor Middle School in Erlanger. “Our kids aren't coming to us with even basic skills.”

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