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Study sees US students behind in advanced math

Leaders in American industry and high technology who are looking to the future - and seeing tough competition overseas - will feel little comfort from a major new study comparing the math abilities of students in the United States with students abroad. ``The mathematical yield of US schools may be rated as among the lowest of any advanced industrialized country taking part in the study,'' states the 10-year report titled ``The Underachieving Curriculum.'' The study of 12,000 students in 20 countries was carried out by a team of US experts, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education. It was released yesterday - along with two other studies of math education - by the National Academy of Sciences.

US eighth-graders scored in the top 60 percent of all countries; 12th-graders only scored in the 30th percentile. Japan outperformed all nations.

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Further, and contrary to assumptions long held by US educators, the best US students are not at the top of the international mathematical pyramid - but at the bottom.

Japan, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Hong Kong, New Zealand, England, Belgium, France, and Scotland scored better than both the top 5 percent and the top 1 percent of US calculus students (in that order). Among countries teaching calculus, only Israel did as poorly.

US students did slightly better than average on computational (basic arithmatic) skills but scored ``well below'' the norm in problem-solving skills. US students were especially weak in the areas of geometry, measurement, and spacial perception (the ability to perceive three-dimensional objects) and in understanding how systems and patterns work. This is bad news, experts say, since these skills underly all physics and chemistry, engineering, and computer science.

The ``culprit'' in all this, the report states, is the diffuse, ``arithmetic-driven'' US math curricula - characterized by repetition and review. It is ``elementary school math'' that students encounter throughout junior high. As a result, few US students are prepared for advanced math in high school (only 15 percent of US students take advanced math; only 3 percent take calculus).

By contrast, Japan teaches a half-year of algebra in seventh grade. France and Belgium teach geometry.

``Our curriculum is helping to create a nation of underachievers,'' said Kenneth Travers, professor of math at the University of Illinois, and the study's author. ``We are not what we ought to be. It is a time for change.''

``We put all our apples in the basket of helping students with what they can do with a hand calculator,'' says John Dossey, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, ``We are failing to give them skills needed to translate math into areas of application.''

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US teacher preparation is another weakness. The average US elementary-school teacher takes only five hours of college math - methods courses included.

One reason the new findings especially irk math educators is that US eighth-graders spend more time in math class (144 hours) than most other countries (Japanese youths spend 99 hours).

This reflects a pervasive ethic among US parents that math ability is a natural talent; poor performance is excused on that basis. In Asia, math ability is seen to be based on hard and disciplined work; this is what children are taught.

The other two studies, carried out by the University of Michigan, had similar findings. One compared Chinese, Japanese, and American students; the other examined familial and educational attitudes underlying early math achievement in American and Asian cultures.