Every few years, an international test is given and American students finish in the middle of the pack.  They went up during the 2000s but American kids have never been at the top - international students learn facts and American kids learn 'how to think'. Americans were 11th out of 12 countries taking the international assessment the first time it was given in the early 1960s.  They are not testing what American students are learning.

Given the rampant criticism educators, the government and students get from cultural pundits ('dismal', 'being left behind', etc.) each time one of those assessments is given, it seems like a non-starter to try and change education to teach more critical thinking.

But a group is trying.  They call it the 8+1 Science concept and it calls for a radical overhaul in K-12 schools that moves even farther away from memorizing scientific facts and  puts more focus on helping students understand eight fundamental science concepts. The "plus one" is the importance of inquiry, the practice of asking why things happen around us – and a fundamental part of science.

The 8+1 concepts were derived from two basic questions: What are things made of and how do systems interact and change? The eight concepts are: atoms, cells, radiation, systems change, forces, energy, conservation of mass and energy, and variation. Traditionally, science in the United States has been taught in separate classes for chemistry, biology and physics, without clear connections being made between the subjects. The 8+1 effort encourages K-12 teachers to use the eight science concepts to build understanding within and between their courses as students advance through the grades.

That part sounds good.  Redo math too.  There is no reason students learn algebra, then geometry than trigonometry and then calculus.  Spend much less time on geometry and teach calculus before trigonometry and math understanding would go up as well.

"The natural world seems to operate through these laws and concepts, but when it comes to schooling we don't teach children these laws and then show how these apply in different situations," said Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of statistics and educationWilliam Schmidt. 

Simon Billinge, an 8+1 committee member and professor of applied physics and mathematics at Columbia University, said the aim is for students to see, for example, the physics within biology and the chemistry within physics, so they can gain an understanding of science that transcends disciplinary lines.

Today's frontiers in science often occur at these disciplinary edges. Aided by the explosion in technology and scientific discoveries, new fields are arising that were hardly imagined a generation ago such as synthetic biology, digital organisms and genomics.

Most states are participating in a process to develop new K-12 science standards that are more relevant, coherent and based on international benchmarks.

Stephen Pruitt, vice president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization managing the state-led effort, said 8+1 Science can work hand-in-hand with his organization's effort – called Next Generation Science Standards – "to change the way we think about science education. The emphasis is about helping students learn key concepts in science, rather than just facts." 

Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress show only 34 percent of fourth-graders and 30 percent of 12th-graders were proficient in their science knowledge. Internationally, U.S. students ranked a mediocre 25th in their science knowledge among countries studied by the Program for International Student Assessment.

Because those assessments test facts, not critical thinking. In that light, more abstract thought would be harmful, not helpful.