SAN FRANCISCO It's been said often: Uninterested U.S. students aren't keeping up in science, technology, engineering and math, ultimately leading to a decline in skilled workers and U.S. competitiveness.
But new research contradicts the conventional wisdom, asserting that U.S. students are doing well compared to their foreign counterparts. Moreover, the U.S. is educating a sufficient number of scientists and engineers to maintain its current global competitiveness, according to a Urban Institute report.
International test rankings for U.S. students are often cited as evidence of national math and science weakness, and these data inform national educational policy. But the tests themselves are flawed, said Hal Salzman, senior research associate at the Washington-based organization and co-author of the report.
U.S. students have taken more math, science and foreign language courses over the past ten years than in previous decades, the study found. In 1990, only 45 percent of high school students took chemistry. By 2004, the percentage had risen to 60 percent.
The proportion that hit the math books for three years jumped from 49 percent in 1990 to 72 percent in 2004, while those taking math for four years increased from 29 percent to 50 percent.
SAT math and science scores showed similar gains, according to the Institute's report, "Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand."
But the skills that testing evaluates may not be the ones needed for innovation in a global economy. "Japan, Singapore and [South] Korea do have the kind of education that leads to [better] test performance, but does that lead to more innovation, better jobs and a better economy?" Salzman asked.
For example, Singapore is promoting a national "creativity initiative" because the Asian city-state's leaders realize the need to de-emphasize its narrow educational approach, Salzman said. But for now, he added, it makes little sense to compared math and science scores in tiny Singapore with the sprawling U.S.
Indian policy makers have argued against connecting overall educational success to economic performance. The study notes that the Indian subcontinent has a 39-percent illiteracy rate and high school enrollment of under 50 percent. It owes it success to a small percentage of its citizens, Salzman said.
"The use of average rates across a diverse group of nations and diverse populations is of limited use in drawing conclusions about global standing economically or educationally," the report concluded.
There is support for the criticism of testing methods, even from those who disagree with the study's conclusions. "When you're testing a broader selection, it's going to put the U.S. at a disadvantage," said George Haley, director for the Center for International Industry Competitiveness at the University of New Haven.
Lower-performing students reduce the U.S. average. In other countries, they wouldn't even be eligible to take the tests, Haley said.