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U.S. Science Education: Good But Should Be Better

January 03, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The results of an international test of high school science students are in.

The U.S. showing? Tepid.

Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-olds in 57 countries on their knowledge of science, math and reading concepts. This year's study focused on science literacy.

U.S. students earned a score of 489, below the international average of 500. Finland came in first with a score of 563, followed by Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan and a tie between Estonia and Japan.  The bottom performers were Colombia, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Qatar and the Kyrgyz Republic, dead last with a score of 322. Countries with scores similar to the United States' were Iceland, Latvia, Slovakia, Spain Lithuania and Russia. China and India did not participate.

Our country is being eclipsed by nearly every other industrialized nation, including Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom and France.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) defines science literacy as students' knowledge, skills and ability to apply science to real-life situations.

One Minnesota educator urged caution when examining the PISA results. Cheryl Moertel, a science teacher at Rochester Century High and 2003 High School Science Teacher of the Year, said the test compares apples and oranges. In some countries, only the best students are still in school by age 15.

"Do I think the PISA test is valuable? With a grain of salt," Moertel wrote in an e-mail. "The test has some definite design flaws." She noted that countries can exclude up to 2 percent of special education students, although the United States has more than that. U.S. schools that opted out of the testing were mostly urban and suburban schools -- "often the schools with a large number of advanced courses and pre-AP programs," Moertel said.

Still, she praised the international focus on science. "This may give us the drive to put more emphasis on scientific reasoning and interpretation," she said.

Science is key to the 21st Century workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 26 percent growth in science and engineering jobs by 2012, well above the 15 percent increase projected for the total job market. By 2014, Minnesota will see a 31 percent rise in mathematics-related jobs, an 18.6 percent increase in science jobs, a 24.7 percent increase in health care jobs and an 11.6 percent increase in education and library jobs, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The PISA test also found:

  • The U.S. gender gap in science is closed, with females scoring evenly with males. "We talk about diversity and equal opportunity -- what a wonderful way to show we are making progress," Moertel said.
  • African-American and Hispanic scores lagged behind white and Asian-American scores. On a scale between 1 and 1,000, white students scored 523, Asian-Americans 499, Hispanics 439 and African-Americans 409. Similar racial spreads were recorded in 2000 and 2003.
  • In math literacy, the United States was again in the middle of the pack. Thirty-one countries scored higher and 20 scored lower.

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