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similar. Only 29% of 4th-grade students, 32% of 8th-grade students, and 18% of 12th-grade students performed at or above the proficient level (Figure 3-15). Without fundamental knowledge and skills, the majority of students scoring below this level—particularly those below the basic level—lack the foundation for good jobs and full participation in society.

Our 4th-grade students perform as well in mathematics and science as do their peers in other nations, but in the most recent assessment (1999) 12th graders were almost last among students who participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Of the 20 nations assessed in advanced mathematics and physics, none scored significantly lower than did the United States in either subject. The relative standing of US high school students in those areas has been attributed both to inadequate quality of teaching and to a weak curriculum.

There has, however, been some arguably good news about student achievement. Our 8th graders did better on an international assessment of mathematics and science in 2003 than the same age group did in 1995. Unfortunately, in both cases they ranked poorly in comparison with students from other nations. The achievement gap that separates African American and Hispanic students from white students narrowed during that period. However, a recent assessment by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment revealed that US 15-year-olds are near the bottom worldwide in their ability to solve practical problems that require mathematical understanding. Test results for the last 30 years show that although scores of US 9- and 13-year-olds have improved, scores of 17-year-olds have remained stagnant.53

One key to improving student success in science and mathematics is to increase interest in those subjects, but that is difficult because mathematics and science teachers are, as a group, largely ill-prepared. Furthermore, many adults with whom students come in contact seemingly take pride in “never understanding” or “never liking” mathematics. Analyses of the teacher pool indicate that an increasing number do not major or minor in the discipline they teach, although there is growing pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act for states to hire more highly qualified teachers (see Table 5-1). About 30% of high school mathematics students and 60% of those enrolled in physical sciences have teachers who either did not major in the


The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Web site is available at: PISA, a survey every 3 years (2000, 2003, 2006, etc.) of 15-year-olds in the principal industrialized countries, assesses to what degree students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society.

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