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Data or Scare-Talk About American Schools?

Susan Notes: Here's what happens when a noted expert examines the data on how U. S. students are doing in international comparisons.


By Donald C. Orlich

On August 16th the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Terry Bergeson, informed 1,000 educators in Spokane that our schools are falling behind . . . "That is worse than Sputnik" she stated.

But what do the data reveal?

In 1992, the National Science Foundation compared the achievement of 13-year-old mathematics students in the U.S. with performance internationally (Suter, 1996). Taiwan was tops, followed by Iowa, South Korea, North Dakota and Minnesota. Twelve of the top-20 were U.S. states, including Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado in the West.

A 1998 report, issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics that compared 13-year-old science students in individual states against each other and other nations, showed U.S. states would hold 14 of the top 15 places in the world if data were disaggregated by states (Johnson & Siegendorf, 1998).

A most laudatory note was brought home in a July 2001 announcement by the College Board News (2001). American students in physics and calculus, who scored well on Advanced Placement exams in this country, went on to outperform students in the rest of the world. It showed dramatically that our best are clearly "at the top of the world in academic achieveŽment" (p. 2) stated Lee Jones, the Executive Director of the College Board's Advanced PlaceŽment Program. Indeed, Advanced Placement courses definitely illustrate that highly effective instruction is taking place in our high schools.

Other International Indicators. Three rather important studies need to be inserted here. The first is the Programme for InterŽnational Student Assessment (PISA), a report issued by The Organization for Economic CoopŽeration and Development (2002). The second is Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2002 (2003). The third is the recently released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2001.

The PISA survey focuses on reading literacy in 32 countries. Some of the critical findŽings are briefly summarized below (Reading for Change, 2002).

• Finland, which led all countries, and the United States were at the mean national level indicaŽtor-among the higher group.

• Children in the USA were among the highest scorers in reading, yet were among the "least engaged" in the world.

• Worldwide students whose parents had higher status jobs tended to have the best reading attiŽtudes and habits.

The G-8 study, published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2003-026), provides an interesting snapshot of student achievement in the eight most powerful economies of the world. Included are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. Data sources were assembled from several different surveys, including the PISA, already discussed (Sherman et al., 2003).

The study of G-8 nations is a virtual library of information about schooling and student achievement at various levels. A few items are selected to illustrate where the United States stands with its economic peers.

1. In fourth grade mathematics and science achievement, only Japanese children were ahead of American children. (It must also be noted that in some G-8 nations, fifth graders took the exam, so caveat emptor.)

2. Eighth grade math and science achievement found American children at about the median. (Keep in mind at grade eight most G-8 nations segregate stuŽdents into acaŽdemic and vocational tracks but not in the USA.)

3. The 14-year-olds in the USA lead the G-8 nations in total civic knowledge and civic skills. These same children reported that they would be "active citizens" and would be voters.

4. In all G-8 countries, those who
completed higher education showed significantly higher relaŽtive earnings when compared to those without higher education.

The PIRLS study, which surveyed 35 countries, found that only Sweden outperformed the Netherlands and the United States in reading literacy (Mullis et al., 2003). It is also important to note that all our students are being compared to the brightest of those in other nations-and competing very well indeed.

David C. Berliner (2004) offers a summary to the above when he wrote, "The fundamental premise underlying the legislation known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is that the public schools of the United States are failing. But that is a half-truth, at best" (p. 167).

The above data expose that "half-truth." It is unfortunate that the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction must resort to propaganda to frighten educators. And Russian school kids did not launch Sputnik.
Word count above: 740

Dr. Donald C. Orlich is Professor Emeritus, Science Mathematics Engineering Education Center, WashingtonState University.

Donald C. Orlich
435 SE Crestview Street
Pullman, WA 99163-2210
(Home Phone: (509) 334-4214 Office Phone: (509) 335-4844 Email:


References for Editorial Office Verification
Berliner, D. C. (2004). "If the Underlying Premise for No Child Left Behind is False, How Can That Act Solve Our Problems?" In Goodman, K., Goodman, Y., Rapoport, R. & Shannon, P., Saving Our Schools: The Case for Public Education in America. Oakland, CA: RDR Books, pp. 167-184.
The College Board News 2000-2001. (2001). "AP Students with a '3 or Higher' Outperform Advanced Math and Physics Students Both in U.S. and Abroad." New York: July 11, 2001. Full report: E. J. Gonzalez, K. M. O'Connor, J. A. Miles. (June 2001). How Well Do Advanced Placement Students Perform on the TIMSS advanced Mathematics and Physics Tests? Boston: The International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College.
Johnson, E. G. & Siegendorf, A. (1998, May). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Linking the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study: Eighth Grade Results. Project Officer, G. W. Phillips. Washington, DC: GPO, NCES 98-500.
McDonald. R. "Schools Chief Says Challenge of Today Outstrips Sputnik." Spokesman-Review, August 17, 2005.
Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M. O., Gonzalez, E. J. & Kennedy, A. M. (2003). PIRLS 2001 InterŽnational Report: IEA's Study of Reading Literacy Achievement in Primary Schools. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 5. [Sputnik reference.]
Reading for Change: Performance and Engagement Across Countries. (2002). Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Washington, DC.
Sherman, J. D., Steven, D., Honegger, S. & McGivern, J. L. (2003). Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2003. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2003-026, Project Officer: Mariann Lemke. Washington, DC.
Suter, L. E. (Ed.). (1996). Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education 1995. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 1996 (NSF 96-52).

— Donald C. Orlich
Spokesman Review


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