If there were a math-and-science Olympics for elementary and middle schoolers, USA students could hold their heads high — they’re consistently better than average. In math, it turns out, they’re improving substantially, even as a few powerhouse nations see their scores drop.
But at the end of the day, the USA never quite makes it to the medal podium, a dilemma that has educators and policymakers divided, with some saying factors outside school play a key role in both achievement and productivity in general.
For the first time since 2003, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, a battery of international math and science tests among dozens of nations, are out — and they paint a somewhat mixed picture of achievement: On the one hand, the USA ranks consistently above international averages in both subjects.
On the other hand, several nations consistently outscore our fourth- and eighth-graders, with a few countries turning in eye-popping performances.
First, comparing nations on average scores is a pretty silly idea. It’s like ranking runners based on average shoe size or evaluating the high school football team on the basis of how fast the average senior can run the 40-yard dash. Not much link to reality. What is likely much more important is how many high performers you have. On both TIMSS math and science, the U. S. has a much higher proportion of “advanced” scorers than the international median although the proportion is much smaller than in Asian nations.
Second, test scores, at least average test scores, don’t seem to be related to anything important to a national economy. Japan’s kids have always done well, but the economy sank into the Pacific in 1990 and has never recovered. The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years. The WEF examines 12 “pillars of competitiveness,” only one of which is education. We do OK there, but we shine on innovation.
Innovation is the only quality of competitiveness that does not show at some point diminishing returns. Building bigger and faster airplanes can only improve productivity so much. Innovation has no such limits. When journalist Fareed Zakaria asked the Singapore Minister of Education why his high-flying students faded in after-school years, the Minister cited creativity, ambition, and a willingness to challenge existing knowledge, all of which he thought Americans excelled in.