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Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - Page updated at 11:59 A.M.

U.S. students lagging in math skills

By Ben Feller
The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Fifteen-year-olds in the United States don't have the math skills to match up to peers in many other industrialized nations, test scores released yesterday show.

The latest international comparison also underscores an achievement gap in America: White U.S. students scored above average, while blacks and Hispanics scored below it.

Overall, U.S. students scored below the international average in total math literacy and in every specific area tested, from geometry and algebra to statistics and computation.

The Program for International Student Assessment measures math, reading and science literacy among 15-year-olds every three years. This time, the main focus was math.

The test is not a measure of grade-level curriculum but rather a cumulative gauge of skills learned inside and outside school — and how well students apply them to real-life problems. It also aims to give the United States an external reality check about how it is doing.

The United States scored below 20 of the 29 industrialized countries tested. Its performance was about the same as Poland, Hungary and Spain.

When compared with all 39 nations that produced scores, the United States was below 23 countries, above 11 and about the same as four others, with Latvia joining the middle group.

"If we want to be competitive, we have some mountains to climb," Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said at a news conference yesterday. "The good news is, we know that. This report goes into great detail to give us the facts. The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?"

The test is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based intergovernmental group of industrialized countries. The top math performers included Finland, South Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand.
Compared with peers from the OECD countries, even the highest U.S. achievers — those in the top percent of U.S. students — were outperformed.

U.S. scores held steady from 2000 to 2003 in the two math subject areas tested in both years. But both times, about two-thirds of the major industrialized countries did better.

Hickok cited two likely factors in the U.S. performance: insufficient qualifications and knowledge among many U.S. math teachers, and not enough effort to engage students in math at an early age.

Among other U.S. highlights compared with 2000, when the test was last given:

• There was no measurable change in the reading performance of U.S. students, either in the nation's average score or in its average standing alongside other OECD countries.

• In science, there was no significant change in the performance of U.S. students. But the U.S. score in science, which was average in 2000, fell below average in 2003.

• U.S. students scored below the international average in problem-solving, a new category that tests one's ability to use skills that cut across traditional subject areas.

Test participation is voluntary. In the United States, 262 schools and 5,456 students took part.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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