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Researchers Trace Nation's TIMSS Showing to 'Basics'

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The call by some educators and policymakers for a back-to-basics approach to math and science to improve student achievement is based on a false assumption that curriculum and instruction have strayed from traditional roots, a new report argues.

In fact, the study says, U.S. students have been getting exactly that--the "basics." And, based on results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the report says that "what U.S. students learned as a consequence of this focus on basics did not measure up to U.S. goals and expectations."

Teasing Apart TIMSS

Authors of the report are 13 American researchers who have analyzed results from the international study, led by William H. Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University and the U.S. national research coordinator for TIMSS. The report is drawn from a draft of the book Facing the Consequences: Using TIMSS for a Closer Look at United States Mathematics and Science Education, due out this spring from Kluwer Academic Publishers, and was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. It was scheduled for release late last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia.

William H. Schmidt

The book's summary represents the first report of U.S. TIMSS results to tease out the nationwide performance of 4th and 8th graders in order to uncover details and patterns within this nation's schools. The results of 12th graders' performance on TIMSS are due out next week.

The report says that the current push to see math and science classrooms return to the basics is based on "a rash assumption unsupported by data." The TIMSS data on what and how U.S. math and science are taught, the researchers say, "are far from being a reflection of ill-conceived reforms. Instead, the empirical patterns observed reflect a widespread choice to focus on 'basics.'

"If the results are disappointing," the report goes on to say, "the practice--in this case, a focus on traditional 'basics' in mathematics and science--must be questioned."

Eighth graders in the United States did about average in math and science among the 41 nations taking the international assessments, while 4th graders did better, scoring nearly at the top of 26 countries in science. ("4th Graders Do Well in Math, Science Study," June 18, 1997.)

Advocates for the reforms incorporated in such documents as the voluntary national standards in math and science have argued that it has not been long enough since their release for the reforms to be implemented fully.

But Ralph A. Raimi, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rochester in New York, said last week that the "basics" were not to blame. "People label what has been happening as an emphasis on basics, and that's a poor phrase," he said.

"The U.S. curriculum does not have a focus on traditional basics," he argued, "it has a focus on traditional rituals" that lack substance.

Tracking Bashed

Mr. Schmidt and his colleagues contend that not only does the curriculum that students are taught have a bearing on their achievement, but also that achievement is dependent on whether students have access to certain curricula.

The performance of American students cannot be explained away by socioeconomic factors, Mr. Schmidt said in a telephone interview last week. On TIMSS, U.S. students as a group did poorly on the same sets of tasks and relatively well on other tasks, he said. What that reflects, he said, "is what a country chooses to be important and to focus on."

The report also criticizes the practice of academic ability grouping, or "tracking."

Likely explanations for the differences in performance among U.S. students are tracking in math, and, in science, the practice of having students take specialized courses from middle school onward, the report says. The single factor that accounted most for disparities in achievement among U.S. students was what class they were assigned to--especially when the difference was between an algebra class and a non-algebra "regular" math class.

"The American system," Mr. Schmidt said, "is exaggerating differences among groups of students instead of helping all students get to some common set of knowledge."

The summary report is available on the Internet at, or by writing to Mr. Schmidt at 463 Erickson Hall, College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1034.

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