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US lags in math, but not as far

It's so consistent it's almost a cliché: Asian students outperform their Western counterparts when it comes to science and math. But a new survey of educational performance around the world holds some encouraging news for the United States. Since 1995, when such tests were first administered, American fourth- and eighth-graders have mostly held their own or modestly increased their scores, according to the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released Tuesday. Such progress is something few of the top-ranked countries can claim.

US education experts aren't ready to celebrate, however. "It's good news, but it's not the end," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. Much remains to be done, he adds.

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While the American results offer a glimmer of hope about school reform, the overall picture painted by the TIMSS reinforces the stark findings of another survey, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), released last week. It found that the US and Western Europe still are far behind Asian countries such as Singapore and Korea in science and math.

The issue is likely to raise big concerns in Scandanavia, where Sweden and Norway saw large declines in both math and science between 1995 and 2003, and in the US, where sweeping school reforms have come under attack recently.

"Overall, both PISA and TIMSS offer sobering news to anyone who's concerned about education or the future of the country," says Ross Wiener, policy director for The Education Trust in Washington, D.C.

Some of the most notable TIMSS findings:

• Singapore topped the lists for math and science achievement at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

• Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan ranked consistently in the top five, with Hong Kong showing dramatic improvement since the 1995 study. These Asian countries were most dominant in their students' understanding of advanced mathematical concepts.

• Bulgarian eighth-graders saw the largest declines in average math and science scores, followed by their peers in Sweden and Norway.

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• American students generally rated in the top third of countries, but at the bottom of that group. Their best showing was among eighth-graders in science, where they ranked eighth out of 37 countries.

• Class size was not the key to performance. The average size of US classes was only 24 students, while countries with better scores had much bigger classes: an average of 38 in Singapore, 37 in South Korea, and 35 in Japan.

• Economics can explain some of the international gap. While American students of all economic backgrounds lagged their Asian counterparts, the gap was significantly greater, on average, in comparisons of Americans and Asians from schools where more than half of the students were economically disadvantaged.

Despite all the money, resources, and studies dedicated to improving the US educational system in the past decade, America clearly is not a top-tier nation when it comes to student performance, particularly in math and science.

And it's not because Uncle Sam's kids are camped out in front of TVs while their Japanese peers are bent over calculators in study rooms. Japanese 14-year-olds watch almost 30 minutes more TV per day than their American peers.

Differences in culture may be one reason Asian students outperform those in the West.

"Culturally, I don't know that the US would ever catch up with the performance of the Asian countries," says Ina Mullis, one of the principal authors of the TIMSS. While she points to the influence of Confucianism, which emphasizes the importance of learning, on Asian culture, Mr. Jennings suggests that the abstract thinking required in learning Chinese and Chinese-derivative languages may aid Asian students in grasping abstract mathematical concepts more quickly than their Western counterparts.

The deciding factor, many experts say, is the quality of math and science teaching in the US. Only 8 percent of fourth-grade math teachers in the US majored or specialized in math during their postsecondary education, compared with Singapore (48 percent) and Hong Kong (37 percent). Eighth-grade American teachers fared better, with almost half completing a math major, compared with Singapore (86 percent), Japan (81 percent), Taiwan (63 percent), and Korea (37 percent).

The most instransigent barriers to improvement in math and science performance may be the culture of teaching. Ingrained beliefs among US educators about what is effective and what isn't dull receptivity to new ideas and stall the reform process, says Mr. Wiener of the Education Trust. "If you present information that is incongruous with those beliefs, they question the information, not the beliefs."

The key is making educators aware of the way they teach, as well as some of the methods used by their peers in other countries, adds James Stigler, a psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and coauthor of "The Teaching Gap." In observing classroom methods in the US and six other countries, Stigler has noticed that US teachers tend to be unwilling to consider teaching methods used in other countries.

"We argue a lot about teaching in this country," Professor Stigler says. "But the key differentiator is whether or not teachers are able to engage students in sustained thinking about mathematics."

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