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A Report Card on Teens' Favorite Subjects

A Report Card on Teens' Favorite Subjects

It's no secret that American teens' math and science scores lag woefully behind those of teens in many other countries, and their proficiency levels in these areas leave much to be desired. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics and science assessment results for tests conducted in 2000, 83% of 12th graders are not proficient in mathematics, and 82% of 12th graders are not proficient in science. The true unknown is how to solve this problem.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige unveiled the Bush administration's proposed solution -- the Mathematics and Science Initiative -- during a February math summit. Among other measures, the initiative calls for a public relations campaign to plug the importance of math and science education and encourage more students to pursue these studies. However, Gallup data indicate that math and science are already popular subjects among many U.S. teens. According to the results of the 2003 Gallup Youth Survey*, math (23%) and science (14%) are mentioned most often as American teens' (aged 13 to 17) favorite course in school.

So if math and science top the list of teens' favorite school subjects, why aren't more teens proficient in these areas? At the math summit, Institute of Educational Sciences Director Grover J. Whitehurst presented data from 37 countries participating in the 1995 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The results actually showed a negative relationship between math scores and how much kids like math, he said.

"Children in countries that were at the top on math achievement, such as Japan, don't like math," Whitehurst said. "Children in countries at the bottom of international achievement, such as South Africa, like math more than children from any other country in the world."

On to Other Subjects

History is tied for third place with English/literature on the list of teen favorites -- 10% of teens named this subject as their favorite. Unfortunately, teens seem to be even less proficient in history than they are in math or science. According to the 2001 NAEP U.S. history assessment, just 11% of 12th graders score at or above the proficiency level.

Ten percent of teens mention "English" or "literature" as their favorite course, and 22% of U.S. 12th graders score at or above the proficiency level in writing, according to the 1998 NAEP writing assessment.

Bottom Line

Math and science top the list of teens' favorite school subjects, but U.S. teens as a group have a long way to go in becoming proficient in these areas.

Whitehurst suggested at the summit that the "math wars" currently being waged in the United States over how children should be taught math could be part of the problem. One current philosophy espouses that children should focus on developing their own understanding of math, rather than the traditional approach of learning math facts and concepts. Another philosophy, which lost favor during the math education reforms in the 1990s, emphasizes the "drill-and-kill" method -- the method of repeatedly practicing the same math skill until becoming proficient.

The drill and practice method of learning math may not be fun, Whitehurst said, but he also suggested that some of this type of practice may be necessary. "By failing to acknowledge that mathematical learning involves work," he said, "the United States may be placing a ceiling on the levels of proficiency that it can expect its students to achieve."

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 1,200 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 23-Feb. 10, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%. For a complete description of the sampling and weighting procedures used to conduct the survey, click here.

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