Why can’t the US keep up with international test scores?

By Cody Candler

Pew Research Center conducted a study on American attitudes towards the US educational system (2015):

Only 29% of Americans rated their country’s K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM) as above average or the best in the world. Scientists were even more critical: A companion survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16% called U.S. K-12 STEM education the best or above average; 46%, in contrast, said K-12 STEM in the U.S. was below average. [1]

Are these opinions justified? According to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) results, our international standardized test scores don’t hold up against countries like Japan and Finland. Our PISA (Program for International Assessment) scores are even worse―ranking the US around the middle of the pack.

  • Math

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  • Science

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Fortunately, as Pew Research Center points out in U.S. students improving – slowly – in math and science, but still lagging internationally [1], the U.S. is making progress. The article points out that our worse scores come from the PISA, which evaluates 15-year-olds across 64 countries. We fare much better on our TIMMS scores which evaluate 4th and 8th graders across 42 countries. This could indicate that our younger generation has been receiving a more effective education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has observed an increase in math scores of American 4th and 8th graders since 1990 (right) [1].



Additionally, the 2011 TIMMS report officially listed the United States as an improving country in math for 4th and 8th grade and science for 8th grade; although, 4th grade science didn’t make the list [4] . Even if our scores aren’t the best in the world, the U.S. educational system is seeing improvement in standardized test scores.

  • Math
  • Science

Of course,whether standardized tests are beneficial at all is a heavily debated topic and the overall scores certainly aren’t the most useful information the tests give us. If anything is truly valuable, it is the breakdown of which questions are being missed.

On the TIMMS test, American students do quite well on questions that are fact based such as this 4th grade  science question:

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and this 4th grade math question:

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but our students are struggling with questions that require problem solving such as this 4th grade science question:

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and this 8th grade math problem:

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Unfortunately for the U.S., the ability to problem solve is generally much more useful that memorizing facts in STEM fields. The poor performance of the U.S. in these standardized tests means one of two things. Either the entire American education system is designed in such a way that our children aren’t getting an opportunity to problem solve OR our participation in standardized testing is encouraging ineffective methods of teaching. Either way, if the U.S. wants to get ahead in education internationally, increased problem solving skills are key.

Work Cited
[1] Desilver, Drew. “U.S. Students Improving – Slowly – in Math and Science, but Still Lagging Internationally.” Pew Research Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 02 Feb. 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/02/u-s-students-improving-slowly-in-math-and-science-but-still-lagging-internationally/&gt;.

[2] Mullis, Ina V. S. TIMSS 2011 International Results in Mathematics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <https://nces.ed.gov/timss/results11.asp&gt;.

[3] Martin, Michael O., Ina V. S. Mullis, Pierre Foy, and Gabrielle M. Stanco. TIMSS 2011 International Results in Science. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Https://nces.ed.gov/timss/results11.asp. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

[4] Highlights from Timss 2011: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S.Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context. AppendixE: Standard Error Tables. Nces 2013-009. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <https://nces.ed.gov/timss/results11.asp&gt;.


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