Posted on December 11, 2012 at 9:52 AM
WASHINGTON—Asian schoolchildren dominate in reading, math and science, coming in ahead of their peers in Europe and the U.S., according to an international study released Tuesday.
The tiny city-state of Singapore takes first place in science among 13 and 14 year-olds and math at age 9 or 10, with South Korea scoring nearly as high. Singapore takes second place to South Korea among the older students for math, with Taiwan in third.
The results also lean toward Asian nations when it comes to advanced levels of learning. In Singapore, 4 in 10 teenagers who were tested achieved the “advanced benchmark” in science, which requires an understanding of complex and abstract concepts in physics, chemistry, biology and other sciences. About 2 in 10 make the grade in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In the U.S., it’s about 1 in 10.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and its sister test, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, are used to measure knowledge, skills and mastery of curricula by elementary and middle school students around the world. Students in rich, industrialized nations and poor, developing countries alike are tested. In 2011, 56 educational systems took part in math and science exams. Fifty-three systems participated in the reading exam.
The study is conducted every four years in nations around the world.
“These kinds of tests are very good at telling us who’s ahead in the race. They don’t have a lot to say about causes or why countries are where they are,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Loveless, who in previous years represented the U.S. in the international group that administers the test.
In the U.S., children performed better than the global average. Elementary school children have improved their scores in reading and math over the past four years, according to the study. But progress seems to fall off in later grades, where math and science scores are stagnant.
“These 2011 international assessments provide both encouraging news about our students’ progress and some sobering cautionary notes,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who warned the gains among younger children aren’t being sustained in later grades. “That is unacceptable if our schools are to live up to the American promise of giving all children a world-class education.”
In the meantime, other countries are making significant strides. Russian middle school students were about tied in math with their American peers in 2007, the last time the study was conducted. Four years later, Russia’s scores have surged and now surpass the U.S. by a significant margin.
Globally, the gender gap appears to be closing. About half of the countries showed no statistically meaningful gap between boys and girls in math and science.
The tests are carried out by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition of research institutions.