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Student Achievement Opinion

Rating Science and Math

What the International Tests Are Telling Us
By Arthur Eisenkraft — February 14, 2001 7 min read
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The results of the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study- Repeat confirm what we first learned in 1995 about the science and mathematics achievement of American students: Our 8th graders are not keeping pace in math or science when compared with students from around the world. But the good news is that we know what needs to be done to bring about dramatic changes, and we have a path to get there. The well-thought-out recommendations from the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, chaired by former Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, provide a blueprint for progress in student achievement. The challenge is to instill a sense of urgency among the public to take action and implement much-needed reforms. We cannot afford to ignore yet another alarm.

The TIMSS-R results show that the 8th graders tested in 1999 exceeded the international average in both science and math, but their performance was anything but stellar. Of the 38 nations taking the test, students in 17 countries—among them Singapore, Hungary, and Japan—performed better than U.S. 8th graders in science; in math, students in 18 countries—a group including Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—did better than their American counterparts. (“U.S. Students’ Scores Drop by 8th Grade,” Dec. 13, 2000.)

These results are particularly disappointing because four years ago, many of these American 8th graders—then 4th graders—were outperformed only by Korea in science and ranked above the international average in math. The hope was that this group represented the early results of reform efforts and would continue to do well as they progressed through school. But the fact is, students from many other countries are learning at a faster rate and are leaving America’s students far behind.

What happens now? TIMSS shows us that expecting more from young people at an earlier age pays off. Teachers abroad teach geometry, chemistry, and physics in middle school, operating under the assumption that children can learn these subjects at a younger age—and they can. Another benefit of starting earlier is that it gives students more time to truly understand the concepts underlying these disciplines.

71 percent of students internationally learn math from teachers who majored in the field, while only 41 percent of U.S. students are taught by teachers with a math degree.

The data also reveal more systemic concerns. Our science and math curricula are overburdened with too many subjects taught at a superficial level. For most American students, the curriculum they study is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” while many other countries have developed a more rigorous and focused teaching program that allows students to study fewer subjects on a deeper level.

But perhaps the most compelling insights from the TIMSS-R project are what the data tell us about teaching: what we believe is the cornerstone of an effective science education program. According to the study, 71 percent of students internationally learn math from teachers who majored in the field, while only 41 percent of U.S. students are taught by teachers with a math degree. American students also are less likely to be taught by a teacher with a degree in physics than their peers in other nations.

Even more compelling are the findings highlighted by the Glenn commission: Nearly one in four of our high school math teachers and one in five high school science teachers lack even a minor in their main teaching field. As then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said, “We cannot expect to lead the world in math and science if our geometry students are being taught by history teachers.”


We know what teachers need to be successful: expertise in the subjects they are asked to teach, time to prepare their lessons and exchange knowledge with other teachers, and continuing professional development, so that they can remain current in an ever-changing field as well as knowledgeable about content and new and effective teaching strategies. These fundamental requirements are clearly stated in the national science education standards that were released in late 1995. The standards present a vision of an integrated science program characterized by a strong, inquiry- based curriculum with properly aligned assessments, a well-trained teaching staff with continuous opportunities for professional development, and support from the school administration and the community.

What these latest test scores tell us is that most of our schools have not yet adopted this vision and translated it into a strong and cohesive science education program. As a result, many teachers are doing their jobs without the support they need, and students are not learning what they need to know.

While the standards outline general guidelines for improving the quality of science and math teaching, a report released last September by the Glenn Commission, titled “Before It’s Too Late,” provides specific strategies to improve science and math teaching. (“Effort To Recruit Math, Science Teachers Urged,” Oct. 4, 2000.)

That blue-ribbon commission of national leaders in science and mathematics education, policymakers, business leaders, and key administrators emphasized that sweeping changes were necessary for serious reform in math and science education. They called for “a vigorous national response” and asserted that “tinkering around the edges of reform will not suffice.” The commission also called for a financial commitment from federal, state, and local governments, as well as from business and the public and private sectors, to support the widespread effort. With an estimated $5 billion price tag, the proposed expenditure would be a drop in the bucket compared with President Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax-cut proposal.


It’s time to move away from the headlines advertising the disappointing TIMSS results and look to the encouraging recommendations from the Glenn Commission. (Unfortunately, though the commission’s report was released during a presidential campaign in which education was arguably the No. 1 concern, it barely registered a blip on our national radar screen.) The National Science Teachers Association wholeheartedly supports the recommendations in the Glenn Commission’s report, which include the following:

TIMSS shows us that expecting more from young people at an earlier age pays off.

  • We must implement an ongoing professional-development system that enables teachers “to deepen their knowledge of their subjects, sharpen their teaching skills in the classroom, keep up with developments in their fields and in education, generate and contribute new knowledge to the profession, and increase their ability to monitor students’ work so that they can provide constructive feedback and appropriately redirect their own teaching.” To reach this level of professionalism, teachers must take responsibility for their continuous learning and development, school administrators must provide teachers with the time and the resources they need to prepare and to collaborate, and policymakers and businesses must do their part to ensure that effective professional development takes place.
  • We must establish summer institutes nationwide that provide teachers with needed content knowledge in the short term and are incorporated as a critical component of teacher recertification over the long term.

We must develop smaller inquiry groups, offered during the summer as well as during the school year, that give teachers time to work with their colleagues to hone their teaching skills and increase the depth of their scientific knowledge. Both summer institutes and smaller inquiry groups should be facilitated by master teachers who have kept current about effective teaching strategies, have accomplished demonstrable results of higher student achievement in math and science, and are adept at using technology to reinforce learning.

The time to act is now. With 2.2 million of the nation’s teachers expected to retire or otherwise leave teaching in the next decade—many of these teachers at the elementary level—we have a perfect opportunity to recruit new teachers from a pool of able college students.


Five years ago, shortly after the science standards were released, the NSTA surveyed 5,000 randomly selected teachers about whether they thought the standards would improve the way science is taught in the classroom. While 80 percent of those who answered said yes, they added that they expected to run into three barriers: inadequate time for planning and working with other teachers, lack of financial support for professional development, and inadequate science materials, resources, and facilities.

We should view TIMSS-R as a second chance to act constructively to do what needs to be done.

Considering the TIMSS-R results, it appears that these teachers were correct. But it is not too late to remove these barriers. We should view TIMSS-R as a second chance to act constructively to do what needs to be done to improve our science and math education system. We must demand a “vigorous national response.”

If the United States was ranked 17th in the world in Olympic medals, it would be a national embarrassment. And, no doubt, there would be a free flow of money to fix the problem. Why can’t the same be true for education?

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Rating Science and Math

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