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Urban Institute Report Assesses Science and Engineering in America

Document date: October 29, 2007
Released online: October 30, 2007

Contact: Elizabeth Cronen, (202) 261-5723, ecronen@ui.urban.org

Washington, D.C., October 29, 2007 -- A new Urban Institute report challenges the widely held impressions that American students score worst in the world in math and science and that their poor performance weakens the nation's high-technology workforce.

In "Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand," Harold Salzman and Lindsey Lowell analyze international test data and domestic workforce statistics. They find that U.S. students do well and are gaining ground compared to math and science students abroad, with American scientists and engineers educated each year in numbers great enough to maintain the nation's technological strength.

"When it comes to math and science, American students are no worse, and often score better, than students from many leading countries," says Salzman. Moreover, Salzman and Lowell find the United States is one of only a handful of nations that maintained or improved test performance in all subjects, grades, and years tested.

In their study, the scholars reassess the oft-cited standings produced by two major evaluations—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—and find that statistically insignificant variations in test scores misrepresent performance differences among nations. 

For example, on a 2003 4th-grade science exam (the most recent TIMSS data for that grade and subject), the United States placed fifth among the dozens of participating countries, but the score was not statistically different from the marks earned by the nations listed third and fourth. Indeed, as Salzman and Lowell note, once minute statistical differences are eliminated, the test rankings form three groups: top-, middle-, and bottom-performing nations. American students consistently land in the middle group on math and science exams for all grade levels tested, with scores rising measurably over time on some tests. In 2003, American students scored as well as students from Russia and Spain in 8th-grade math and, in science, on par with 15-year-olds in Germany, Austria, Russia, and Sweden.

The paper's higher-education data suggest abundant U.S. strength in the science and engineering labor market as well. Salzman and Lowell report that from 1985 to 2000, U.S. colleges and universities granted an annual average of 435,000 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees to domestic students studying science and engineering, triple the net growth in science and engineering jobs over the same period.

Salzman and Lowell, however, caution that despite American students' impressive standing overall, large segments of the U.S. school population fare quite poorly. In fact, the scholars recommend that the low performance of the least-skilled students should be of great concern to policymakers.

"The difficulties center on the least proficient students. Leaders preoccupied with bolstering the achievement of students bound for high-tech fields may be neglecting those who need the basic abilities to perform the millions of jobs that keep the economy productive and efficient, day in and day out," says Salzman. "The issue isn't whether American dominance in the international marketplace is threatened—on average, plenty of U.S. students are well-prepared to compete—but whether the nation will work to improve the education of its lowest-performing students."

Salzman is a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and Lowell is director of policy studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown. Their study was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation. It can be downloaded from http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411562.

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