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U.S. fourth graders show gains in science, math; eighth-grade achievement flat

Racial and class disparities continue to exist; in eighth grade, Americans in the schools with the highest poverty performed below both the U.S. and international average.

American fourth-graders are performing better than they were four years ago in math and reading, but students four years older show no such progress, a global study released Dec. 11 revealed.

Although the U.S. remains in the top dozen or so countries in all subjects tested, the gap between the U.S. and the top-performing nations is much wider at the eighth-grade level, especially in math.

“When you start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which coordinated the U.S. portion of the international exam.

Even where U.S. student scores have improved, many other nations have improved much faster, leaving American students far behind many of their peers—especially in Asia and Europe.

With an eye toward global competitiveness, U.S. education officials are sounding the alarm over what they describe as a recurring theme when American students are put to the test. Lamenting what he described as “sober cautionary notes,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said it was unacceptable that eighth-grade achievement in math and science are stagnant, with U.S. students far less likely than many Asian counterparts to reach advanced levels in science.

“If we as a nation don’t turn that around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy,” Duncan said.

American students still perform better than the global average in all subject areas, the study found, although students from the poorest U.S. schools fall short.

But the U.S. is far from leading the pack, a distinction now enjoyed by kids in countries like Finland and Singapore who outperformed American fourth-graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind their Russian, Japanese, and Taiwanese counterparts in math, and trail students from Hong Kong, Slovenia, and South Korea in science.

While many policy makers worry that a nation that once took pride in being at the top of its game no longer can call itself the global leader in student performance, Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, notes that international comparisons of student achievement are difficult.

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