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Third International Math and Science Study: 12th Grade Advanced Science Results

A Statement by Andrew Sessler, APS President

The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that U.S. 12th-grade students rank well below students in other countries in science. In addition, U.S. student performance in physics is rated the lowest of the 16 participating countries. Clearly, the physics community has a lot of work to do.

We, as a nation, need to face the challenge of preparing our children with a better understanding of science. A workforce that is well educated in science will be better prepared to succeed in the global economy of the 21st century, much of which will be driven by physics-based advanced technology. While the TIMSS results are disappointing, we see them as a challenge to examine our approach to science education and re-commit ourselves to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics.

We believe that physics requires more time in the high school curriculum. Physics principles should be introduced at an earlier stage of the student's career so that they are acquainted with the wonders of physics and prepared to meet the challenges of the modern world. Presently, most students who take high school physics, only about 25 percent of the high school population, do so only in their senior year. This leaves them poorly equipped to apply an understanding of major scientific principles to the complex, technological world of the future.

We also need to set higher expectations for our students when it comes to science. This can be achieved in part by states adopting standards based on the national standards for science education (developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council). Currently, the curriculum presented to U.S. students is "a mile wide and an inch deep." To rectify this situation, the state standards need to emphasize understanding the fundamentals of science rather than just recalling facts. This will allow U.S. students to develop the problem-solving skills that will benefit them no matter what careers they choose.

In addition, we need to provide our students with the best teachers. We deplore the structure of American education that forces teachers with insufficient science preparation, especially in physics, to teach courses at the high school level. To address these issues, we need to concentrate on improving professional development, increasing compensation, and simplifying the certification process to make it easier for people trained in science to teach in high schools. Placing greater value on high school science teachers sends a strong message to students that science is an important part of their education.

The American Physical Society (APS) recognizes that in this rapidly changing world all children need to carry the knowledge of math and science with them beyond the classroom. A cooperative effort of many groups is needed. In its own modest response, the APS, together with the American Association of Physics Teachers, launched its Campaign for Physics which raised funds from technology-based companies, physicists from around the United States, and other concerned individuals to improve science education from the kindergarten through 6th grade.

A nationwide APS program, the Teacher-Scientist Alliance, uses Campaign funds to promote fundamental changes in the way we educate our children in science. This program encourages students to learn science by doing it through creative, practical learning and understanding, not just memorization. Guided firmly by the national standards, this program focuses on science education reform in the elementary and middle schools because it is believed that fundamental attitudes about science develop during these years. To date, the program has been implemented in 54 school districts in more than 20 states. In addition, we encourage and train scientists and engineers to work with teachers and local school districts to bring this hands-on, inquiry-centered approach into the classroom. This is a start, but certainly more of these kinds of partnerships should be undertaken.

Science, particularly physics, has played a major role in computer technology, aerospace, medicine and other key industries of the 20th century. These industries have provided the United States with an improved standard of living and a strong economy. The APS is committed to working with others to ensure that U.S. students are given the best science education possible so that they will have the opportunity to expand the horizons of our nation in the 21st century. After all, there is more at stake here than a grade on a report card.

TIMSS Synopsis

A press release with Sessler's statement above was made shortly after the announcement that US 12th-graders perform poorly in math and science compared to the international community, according to findings from the large Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The TIMSS assessment was given to a half-million students - in fourth grade, eighth grade, and at the end of their secondary education - in 1995. The data gathered was analyzed and presented by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in three reports. The three reports from the TIMSS study are available on the Internet. U.S. twelfth-graders performed among the lowest of 21 countries on the assessment of mathematical and scientific general knowledge, and physics in particular.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin