Although a recent study showed that American high school seniors are woefully behind many of their global counterparts in 1995 tests of math and science literacy, MIT students are doing "better than ever" in high school, and they perform as well as their foreign classmates by the time they graduate from MIT, said Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones.
The US was dead last among 16 nations in advanced physics with a score of 423, compared to 581 for first-place Norway and an international average of 501, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released last week. In advanced mathematics, the US placed 15th out of 16 nations with a score of 442, compared to 557 for France and an overall average of 501.
In math and science literacy, the Americans ranked 18th out of 21 nations with a score of 471, compared to the leaders, the Netherlands (559) and Sweden (555), and an international average of 500.
The study excluded Britain, Asian nations and all but one African nation. It was limited to most of Western and Eastern Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plus Lithuania, the Russian Federation, Cyprus and South Africa. The study is sponsored by an international group based in Amsterdam and directed from Boston College, which released the data.
The TIMSS research, which has tested 500,000 students in five grades in 45 countries, including Asian countries, has in the past shown that American achievement was above average in fourth grade but well below average in eighth grade.
The news caused reporters to call Dean Jones to ask if international applicants to MIT's undergraduate program were better prepared than Americans. In an MIT News Office interview, she said Americans are doing better than ever, although the elite international students are probably better prepared. However, "MIT is the great equalizer," and by the time they leave MIT, she believes they are equal.
"There are more American students at the top, and they are better than ever," Dean Jones said. "The reason? Secondary education has many more magnet programs than there were 10 years ago. There are many more enrichment opportunities for these people, such as specialized after-hours programs, summer programs, and special programs in math and science. However, the international students we admit to MIT are at least as good and probably better than even our top US kids coming in.
"Those countries aren't as big as the United States, and the people who have reached that level have been culled and screened for being the top kids, and they are the top of the top," Dean Jones said.
"Eastern Europe and some of those countries have very long traditions in science and math, and they compete in international Olympics for science and math. We admitted 110 international students last year, about half of whom were from countries participating in those Olympics. Fifty-four were either gold or silver medal winners; we didn't even look at the bronze winners.
"Their secondary school milieu is also different from ours. American MIT students are from public high schools, not the elite academies and specialized high schools of math and science in Europe. They take exams to enter," Dean Jones said.
"America is much larger and more heterogeneous. Our philosophy is to educate everyone through high school. We have no national standard of education; Sweden, Germany and Britain do. In Sweden, they reach a certain level and have to take a test. If they don't do well, they go on to something different.
"Our standards differ by state and within states, and that's the major difference, I think. Here, we just have graduation from high school as the goal. If you're lucky enough to be a strong kid and in a powerhouse state and a good school system and you have the advantage of enrichment programs, then you've got a shot at the very top. If you're from a state with lousy schools or don't have the enrichment, it's a lot tougher.
"I think MIT is the great equalizer. I can't prove this, but I believe that by the time they graduate from MIT, you can't tell them apart.
"Here is why America pulls away: because our universities are flexible and are the best in the world, people can study what they want to study, and they have access to great resources.
"I think it's because of the culture -- that sort of frontier idea that the individual is still valued, and people really admire the ones who come up with the idea. The individual does make a difference. You don't have to be number one in your college -- you don't have to come from a certain class and a certain school. Innovation, creativity, willingness to take risks -- that's what makes this country great," Dean Jones said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 4, 1998.