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Math, Science Study Finds U.S. Covers More in Less Depth

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Albuquerque, N.M.

Science and mathematics curricula for elementary and secondary students in the United States typically cover more topics, but in less depth, than those of other countries, according to the preliminary results of an international study.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, compares math and science curricula in roughly 50 countries. It also looks at student achievement at ages 9 and 13, and at the completion of secondary schooling.

Researchers will release the first reports from the international comparisons next year. The volumes will focus on the content of each nation's curriculum, how it is sequenced, and the performance level expected of students. Actual student testing will begin in the fall in the Southern Hemisphere.

U.S. researchers involved with the effort gave a report on their work during an annual assessment conference sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers here last week.

As part of the study, researchers from the participating countries have conducted detailed analyses of national and regional curriculum guides for math and science and of the most commonly used textbooks at, approximately, grades 4, 8, and 12.

American textbooks are "very encyclopedic'' in their orientation, said William H. Schmidt, the national research coordinator for TIMSS in this country and an applied statistician at Michigan State University.

"We cover lots and lots of things, more than anybody else in the world,'' he said. "But we don't do anything in great depth. The rest of the world seems to focus.''

Science textbooks in the United States typically are two to four times longer than those in other countries, he noted, "and yet it's just these constant snippets of information.'' While some countries expect 13-year-olds to cover 10 to 15 scientific topics in depth, U.S. textbooks rush them through 30 or 40 topics.

In addition, Mr. Schmidt said, there are "astronomical differences'' in how textbooks are structured. In many Asian countries, the science texts consist largely of pictures that detail the steps of an experiment. In contrast, he said, the U.S. textbooks used by 13-year-olds are dense with verbiage.

Some Surprising Comparisons

The international study is said to be the most comprehensive of its kind ever undertaken. In addition to analyzing more than 500 textbooks and 500 curriculum guides, detailed background questionnaires of educational experts, administrators, teachers, and students examine the structure of the education system in each country and what is actually taught in classrooms.

"Nobody has ever attempted anything of this sort internationally,'' Mr. Schmidt said. He added that the data could help inform the debate about what constitutes "world class'' standards.

"How in the heck could you ever compare kids' achievement across the world when there are all these differences to begin with?'' he asked. "It has to be a very sophisticated comparison.''

One option, he said, is for the United States to compare the performance of its students with that of students in countries that have a generally comparable curriculum.

But attempts to group countries according to similarities in their curricula may also yield some surprises. For example, a preliminary analysis of how countries treat topics in the physical sciences in grade 8 finds that the United States has more in common with Bulgaria than with South Africa, Britain, Canada, or New Zealand.

In this country, TIMSS is coordinated by Michigan State University, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Science Foundation.

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