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Editorial: Mediocre test results argue for a tougher curriculum

Monday, December 11, 2000

American children do a pretty good job of learning what they are taught -- which is why their performance on international examinations in math and science is so mediocre.

While students around the world are grappling with algebra, geometry and problem-solving by the time they are in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, most American students are still studying arithmetic. So when you test American eighth-graders on algebra, geometry and problem-solving, it's not surprising that they don't do as well as their peers around the world.

That news came through loud and clear with the results of the Third International Math and Science Study in 1995. American fourth-graders performed above the international average because they were studying arithmetic, as were students around the world; eighth-graders fell to the middle of the pack; and 12th-graders brought up the rear, thanks to the cumulative effects of a dumbed-down curriculum.

Many educators and policy-makers got the message and initiated efforts to act on the information. But because education is a local responsibility, and curriculum changes take years to implement, the changes have not yet borne fruit in any general way.

Thus, the recently released results of the latest TIMSS, administered to eighth-graders in 1999, showed little movement. Americans scored in the middle of the pack, on a par with children from Bulgaria, Latvia and New Zealand. They were outperformed by students from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Japan, Finland, Hungary, Netherlands, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.

Few expected a turnaround after only four years. But it would be troubling if things were still the same four years hence.

Curriculum isn't the only problem. American teachers generally don't have as much time or opportunity to polish their lessons and hone their skills. Classes tend to focus on quantity of information imparted and not quality of learning, a problem exacerbated by textbooks that try to be all things to all people. And math, in particular, has been about showing students how to solve problems rather than dwelling on underlying concepts.

There are plenty of issues to tackle and it will take a concerted effort and commitment to apply the lessons learned from the international comparisons. The National Science Foundation has been hard at work in that regard, and locally the Collaborative for Learning has been helping districts meet the challenge.

But the first step is to decide what students -- all students -- need to know and to design a curriculum to get them there. The standards movement helps by setting the bar and insisting that all students clear it. Until the curriculum and texts and teaching methods all work toward that end, however, progress will be slight. And in an increasingly competitive global economy, students' mediocre showing on an international test will be the least of their problems.

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