American eighth-graders improved their math and science scores on an international test last year, but fourth-graders' scores were flat and all students lagged behind other industrialized nations, Boston College researchers said yesterday.
US pupils scored above the international average on the tests, given to students in dozens of wealthy and poor nations every four years. But the grades overall were mediocre for a prosperous nation that devotes billions of dollars to education, test officials said.
"The United States really is an underachiever, given our economy, our educational level, the resources that we put into education," said Ina V. S. Mullis, codirector of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and an education professor at Boston College, which runs the study.
In Washington, D.C., national education officials hailed the higher scores in the eighth grade, especially in algebra. Black and Hispanic students also did better, officials said, crediting the improvement to clearer standards for what schools should teach and greater federal and state oversight of schools.
"One can argue whether it's fast enough, high enough, quick enough," said Patrick Gonzales, the US research coordinator for the test, "but what it means is improvement."
Overall, American eighth-grade scores increased since 1995, when the test was first given, but fourth-grade scores hardly budged.
US scores trailed many industrialized countries, especially those in Asia. Students in Singapore topped all nations in both subjects.
Tunisia and South Africa scored among the lowest.
At a news conference yesterday at Boston College, test officials attributed the mediocre performance of American students to teachers who don't specialize in math and science; a curriculum that tries to cover too many topics, preventing students from mastering any in depth; and a society that may not recognize the importance of math and science in economic growth.
American students were less likely than their peers in other industrialized nations to have a math teacher who majored in math or a science teacher who studied one of the hard sciences, such as biology or physics.
For instance, 81 percent of eighth-graders in Japan had a teacher who majored in math in college, and they scored a 570 out of 1,000. By contrast, 48 percent of US eighth-graders had teachers with math majors, and they averaged a score of 504.
Massachusetts has beefed up the subject requirements for math educators in elementary schools and middle and high schools on the teacher credentialing test.
Still, state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said, "We don't have as many people with a strictly math background as we should."
A sample of 360,000 students around the world, including nearly 20,000 American students across the United States, took the test last year.
The test compares 45 nations in eighth grade and 25 countries in fourth grade.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.