published Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Cleaveland: World laps U.S. in math, science scores

Clif Cleaveland

Compared to other developed countries, the United States fares poorly in mathematics education. Within the United States, Tennessee's public schools rank near the bottom in standardized test scores in these subjects.

Among wealthy nations, the United States ranked 23rd in science and 31st in math in standardized tests. Our high-school seniors competed poorly in advanced math and physics. We rank 27th in college graduates with degrees in science and math.

As a consequence, graduate programs in math and science increasingly must depend upon students from abroad to fill their ranks. We do not produce sufficient graduates to assume careers in teaching, research, and industry where talent must be increasingly imported.

Analysis of national data sets show persistent achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups, across genders and income levels. Poverty provides the greatest barrier to success in math and science, studies show.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show a wide range of educational achievement among states. In 2011 testing of fourth- and eighth-grade students in mathematics, the nation edged slightly higher compared to earlier years. Tennessee's results were flat and well back in the pack. While 34 percent of U.S. students were judged to be at least proficient in math, only 24 percent of Tennessee students attained this level.

Just released assessments of science testing for eighth-graders for 2011 show a slight gain for the nation compared to 2009. Only a third of students were ranked as proficient. Tennessee, along with most states, showed no significant change.

Change the Equation (, a non-profit, non-partisan coalition analyzed 2009 science results more closely. This study compared each state's passing scores on its science tests against NAEP results. Thirty-seven states could be compared.

The news for Tennessee is dire. On a 300-point NAEP scale, Tennessee set its bar for proficient performance on its statewide test at 124, which is below the basic standard of 140 on the NAEP scale. "Proficient," the designation given to 77 percent of Tennessee 8th graders in 2009, means substandard or below basic performance on a national yardstick. We were next to last in this ranking of states.

The website, Measure of America ( provides a rich source of comparative educational data among states. Sixty percent of Tennesseans are high school graduates, 15 percent hold bachelor degrees, eight percent hold graduate degrees. Tennessee ranks 40th in the site's educational index.

Census data from 2010 paints a similar picture, showing Tennessee 46th in expenditures per student in public elementary and secondary schools.

Tennessee's legislature has complicated classroom teaching with its meddlesome laws this session. One statute will facilitate the introduction of junk science by challenging well-established scientific theories. Another allows students to introduce religious arguments into research papers. A third caps the number of foreign-born teachers at public charter schools.

In a very competitive national and international marketplace for science and math dependent skills, Tennessee comes up short. Our public education system is underfunded compared to most other states. Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Haslam proposed reducing taxes to attract retirees to settle in Tennessee. Proposals were discussed to allow local school districts to exceed state standards for numbers of students in a class. These proposals jeopardize funding for already cash-strapped public schools.

Sustained improvement in public education, especially in math and science, is crucial to the future of our young people. We ignore them at our peril.

Next column (June 28): What we can do.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at

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December 19, 2012 at 9:35 p.m.
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