Elementary and middle school science, while useful and necessary, is not an indicator of what happens to the interest and motivation of students when they get to high school. Secondary education is extremely crucial to the development of adults. It is in this period when careers are chosen, futures are planned, and interests are nourished. In America, this is when puberty culture picks Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber as role models of choice for aspiring adolescents, rather than Rosalind Franklin and Steven Weinberg. This is when stupidity becomes “cool” and intelligence becomes “nerdy” and “geeky.” How did American 12th graders perform in TIMSS? Among 21 participating countries in 1995, US ranked 19th in mathematics and 16th in science!
The TIMSS Advanced 2008 tested the mathematical and physical knowledge of students in their last year of secondary education. A glance at the content of the mathematics and physics tests – as well as the embarrassingly poor performance in 1995 – may give a clue as to why America did not participate in this evaluation. After all leaders of American education like Harvard’s Howard Gardner, the originator of “multiple intelligence,” advise that mathematics and science curricula should teach students “how to decide which life insurance to buy, how pesticides affect their food, and how interest rates determine home mortgages.”1 In the same article, Gardner dismisses standardized tests as simply measuring the skill of the participants in problem solving, and if Americans do poorly on them, it is irrelevant because “high scores on these tests obviously aren’t crucial to our economic success.” He overlooks the fact that US economy, which (in 1998) “stands at the top of the world” and whose foundation is laid in electronic and information technology, is driven by South Korean, Indian, and Chinese engineers, who “[irrelevantly] score well on these tests” and were educated in high schools which “through practice … [taught them futilely to] become proficient at a certain skill,” who populated (and are still populating) American mathematics, science, and engineering university classes, and who are now returning to their home countries to help Hyundai, Tata, and Samsung compete fiercely with American auto and computer companies.
Project 2061 was intended to be a long-term initiative. One should not be hasty in judging its effectiveness by the 1995 results. After all, 1995 was only two years after Benchmarks came out. Perhaps later tests would demonstrate its real value. Although no recent evaluation of the scientific knowledge of the American 12th graders has been made, the related field of mathematics has been looked at.
Twenty years after the publication of Project 2061, the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that three quarters (74%) of American 12th graders are below proficient level!
- NYT, March 2, 1998. ↩