Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Surprise! Analyses Link Curriculum, TIMSS Test Scores

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Chicago

As the research coordinator for the U.S. portion of the largest comparative international study of education ever undertaken, William H. Schmidt has this message for educators: It's the curriculum, stupid.

During several sessions here last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Mr. Schmidt suggested that American students' middling performances on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study may stem from the fact that they aren't taught those subjects in the same way that children in other countries learn them.

"We've begun to establish that there is a relationship between what children study and what they learn," Mr. Schmidt said. "It sounds silly, but that's something that's very hard to establish empirically."

"Often, we tend to find excuses in a host of peripheral issues--kids watch too much TV or there's not enough homework--but the TIMSS data keeps driving us back to the basic issues of schooling," added Mr. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor of education.

The Biggest Textbooks

Forty-one nations participated in the achievement portion of TIMSS, which measured the math and science performance of a half-million students at five grade levels. Results for the 7th and 8th graders who took the test were released in November. ("U.S. Students About Average in Global Study," Nov. 27, 1996.)

They showed that American students scored about average on the math portion of the tests and did only slightly better in science.

The TIMSS researchers, working in conjunction with the National Center for Improving Science Education, also studied the curricula in 50 countries, poring over 628 math and science textbooks and 491 curriculum guides from around the world. In a report on that investigation, released in October, the researchers concluded that the math and science curricula in the United States were "a mile wide and an inch deep." ("Math, Science Curricula Said To Fall Short," Oct. 16, 1996.)

Mr. Schmidt illustrated that point clearly when he noted wryly that, in one area, the United States leads the world: "We have the biggest textbooks."

U.S. 8th graders, for example, often lug around science books that number roughly 800 pages and cover more than 65 topics. Their counterparts in Japan or Germany typically use 150- to 200-page textbooks that deal with as few as five topics.

As a result, teachers in the United States are forced to deal superficially with subjects and then review them again yearly, wasting valuable instructional time.

Continuing Analysis

In the months since the achievement and curriculum reports were released, researchers have begun to put the results from the two studies together, Mr. Schmidt said.

Not surprisingly, they have found connections. Countries whose students scored close to the top on math questions involving concepts of congruence and similarity, for example, also ranked high in terms of the amount of geometry covered in their curricula. Nations that scored high on questions involving equations and formulas were among those that devoted the most time to algebra.

Newer analyses are also showing that, when researchers look at how students performed on questions involving particular concepts, such as fractions or equations, the test results were highly variable. On one mathematical concept or another, 30 countries scored in the top 10.

Minnesota's experience offers another illustration of that point. Its 7th and 8th graders scored first in the world in earth science--a subject area for which the state has systematic curriculum guidelines. But in other areas, Minnesota students' scores were closer to the U.S. average, Mr. Schmidt said.

Several sessions here focused on the TIMSS study, which also includes videotaped case studies from several of the participating nations.

Among some of their other findings, researchers noted that the United States stood out among participating nations in one important respect: its 7th and 8th grade girls performed just as well as the boys did in both math and science.

And an analysis of the six top-performing nations by Ina V. Mullis, a researcher at Boston College, also showed that 78 percent of U.S. math teachers allowed their students to begin their homework in class--a finding that sets them apart from teachers in the other nations she studied. She suggested that such a practice might not be the most efficient use of class time.

The TIMSS researchers plan to release a report in June showing how 9-year-olds around the world fared on the tests.

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