PHILADELPHIA - Eighth-graders in well-funded U.S. school districts score nearly as well as those in the top nations in math and science, but students in poor urban areas are near the bottom, according to the latest report from the Third International Math and Science Study.
While calling the gap "disappointing and unacceptable," Education Secretary Rod Paige said President Bush's educational initiatives, which rely on grade-by-grade testing, would help solve the problem - a notion disputed by some education activists.
The U.S. average is slightly above the international average but well below the top performing countries.
The study "shows some schools in the United States are among the best in the world but that not all children have access to world-class education," said Michael Martin of Boston College's International Study Center, which analyzed the results.
The Napierville, Ill., school district, where only 2 percent of the students live in poverty, scored better in mathematics than all states and countries tested except Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
Students in Chicago, Rochester, N.Y., Jersey City, N.J., and the Miami-Dade school districts, on the other hand, scored about on the level of those in Tunisia, Macedonia, Turkey and Jordan.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the 100 largest school districts nationwide, said that urban districts "would not shrink from standards." But, he said, the nation as a whole must confront the vast educational inequities it has created.
"A country as tolerant of inequities as America should not be surprised at results," he said.
He said that until urban children score as well on these tests as their suburban counterparts, "the United States will never be first in the world."
The report showed that U.S. students in general are weaker in measurement and geometry than in fractions and number sense, data representation and algebra. In science, the weakest area was physics.
Students tended to do better when engaged in problem solving in math and in hands-on experimentation in science.
Overall national rankings on the same test, given in 1999, showed that U.S. students were improving, but still lagged behind those in top-performing nations.