Student Achievement

U.S. Students About Average in Global Study

By Millicent Lawton — November 27, 1996 9 min read


The biggest and broadest international study ever conducted comparing the math and science performance of 7th and 8th graders confirms evidence that U.S. achievement is disappointing. But it lays to rest some other popular notions about American education.

American students are neither the very worst in the world nor the very best, a finding that confirms past studies comparing the United States with other countries in mathematics and science. But the findings released here and in Boston last week show that science proved more manageable for American students--they scored above average internationally--than did math, in which they ranked below the mean.

The 41-nation Third International Mathematics and Science Study also debunks the popular American beliefs that more assigned homework is a recipe for success and that the hours per year that U.S. students spend in class are too few for high student achievement.

Nonetheless, education officials in this country were doing what they could to pump up the good news and play down the more negative findings from the study. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education, in one of the documents issued last week, essentially lays claim to a higher place in the rankings.

Known as timss, the project is the largest multi-nation comparative study of educational achievement to date. It marks the first time such a large study has also included information on countries’ curricula, teaching practices, and students’ and teachers’ lives culled from sources as varied as textbooks, videotaped classroom lessons, and questionnaires.

The newly released data on 7th and 8th graders are from the first of three TIMSS reports on different age groups. Results on the achievement of 9-year-olds are to be made available next summer, and a report on the achievement of students in the final year of secondary school is due out in late next year or in early 1998.

The results released last week take the form of three reports--two with all the international results and one written by the Education Department with data and analysis for the United States.

Included in the new reports are scores based on students’ performance on 90-minute exams, one given in math and one in science. Countries were asked to test the two grades with the largest proportion of 13-year-olds.

The findings reflect results from about 4,000 U.S. 7th graders and 7,000 U.S. 8th graders in more than 185 public and private schools. The tests, with both multiple-choice and open-response items, were administered shortly before the end of the 1994-95 school year. Worldwide, students whose special needs or disabilities made test-taking too difficult were excluded.

American education officials and other experts emphasized that there is more to TIMSS than the scorecard of where the U.S. ranks compared with other countries. Regardless, the United States comes in 28th out of 41 countries in 8th graders’ math performance and 17th in 8th graders’ science achievement.

“If we see the news in this report as simply a horse-race story of which country finished first and who finished second, we miss the point,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at the press conference here where the U.S. data were released.

‘World Class’ Benchmark

Still, the international rankings are unavoidable and seem to dash what little hope the United States had of meeting the national goal of ranking first in the world in math and science by 2000.

“TIMSS establishes a benchmark for what world-class performance is in math and science,” Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of education statistics at the Education Department, said.

A business representative, however, was blunt about the significance of U.S. standings in math and science. “Neither result is good enough to compete in today’s high-performance, technology-driven workplace,” said Norman R. Augustine, the vice chairman and chief executive officer of the Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. Mr. Augustine chairs the education task force at the Business Roundtable, a Washington association of more than 200 corporate chief executives.

“More and more, we see that competition in the international marketplace is in reality a battle of the classrooms,” Mr. Augustine said in a statement.

The business community, politicians, and education leaders will be demanding a “strong and continuing focus on these results,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

International comparisons of student achievement have drawn skepticism in the past. But Mr. Ambach and others pointed to the study’s wealth of cross-country data and its strict attention to technical validity, including testing a random sample of representative students in each country. The 16 nations that did not stick to every rule are flagged in the reports.

No Quick Conclusions

Experts emphasized that the volume and complexity of the data make it nearly impossible to draw quick conclusions. A complete analysis will take years, they said.

“No single factor in isolation from others should be regarded as the answer to improving the performance of U.S. 8th grade students,” said the U.S. TIMSS report, “Pursuing Excellence,” written by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

But advocates for math and science teachers said that the results show that four years of undergraduate training for teachers are not enough and that teachers must get more ongoing professional development.

Gerald Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., said: “We need to come up with a uniquely U.S. scheme for reducing the isolation of teachers of science and engaging them in an ongoing dialogue.”

TIMSS is sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, or IEA, an independent cooperative of academic centers in more than 50 countries, and administered by Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. International coordination of TIMSS has been financed by the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, the IEA, and the Canadian government.

Each participating country paid for its own data collection and analysis. The NCES and the NSF paid for the U.S. participation. All told, NSF officials said, taxpayers in the United States have spent about $25 million to $30 million over six years on TIMSS.

Content Weak

The TIMSS report on 13-year-olds found that:

  • The content of U.S. 8th grade math classes is not as challenging as that of other countries, and topic coverage is not as focused. (The U.S. report on the TIMSS data concentrates on the 8th graders because they were the focus of the international designers of the achievement test.)

  • Most U.S. math teachers say they are familiar with published standards for reform, but few apply the key points in the classroom.

  • American 8th graders spend more hours per year in math and science classes than do German and Japanese students. Japan ranked ahead of the United States in both math and science achievement. Germany, which did not follow the study’s rules about students’ age, ranked ahead of the United States in math but behind it in science.

  • U.S. teachers assign more homework and spend more class time discussing it than teachers do in Germany and Japan.

  • Evidence suggests that teachers in this country do not receive as much practical training and daily support as their German and Japanese colleagues.

  • Most of the countries in the study, with the notable exception of the United States, have a nationally defined curriculum.

  • As is the case in the United States, 8th graders worldwide who had better-educated parents and had educational resources in the home, such as books, a computer, or a study desk, achieved higher in math and science than their classmates with fewer resources did.

Last week’s data include results from an analysis released last month that found U.S. math and science curricula lack a coherent focus and leave students at a marked disadvantage compared with students in other countries. (“Math, Science Curricula Said To Fall Short,” Oct. 16, 1996.)

Some Areas Stronger

American students had an easier time with some math and science topics than with others.

Eighth graders’ performance stood at about the international average in algebra, fractions, and probability. It ranked below average in geometry; measurement, such as length, weight, time, and volume; and proportionality, which includes ratios.

In science, U.S. 8th graders did better than average in earth science, environmental issues, and life science. Americans scored about average in science subjects with more mathematical content--chemistry and physics.

Overall, the content taught in American 8th grade math classrooms is at a 7th grade level compared with the 8th grade curricula in the other countries. Algebra and geometry, for example, often are not taught in this country by the 8th grade to any but the top cadre of students. The voluntary national standards for math issued in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics calls for algebra and geometry to be introduced long before the 8th grade.

“We need to refocus our curriculum to include and emphasize problem-solving and to involve children in actually doing the mathematics themselves” by discussing concepts, not supplying definitions when prompted by the teacher, said Gail Burrill, the president of the Reston, Va.-based NCTM and a high school math teacher for 30 years.

Although the NCTM’s math standards were released six years before the data collection for TIMSS, Ms. Burrill said that teachers did not really have the tools to implement them in the classroom. It was only in 1991 that her group released professional teaching standards, she said, and just last year that it came out with assessment standards.

Singapore on Top

Worldwide, Singapore claimed the top spot in science and math at both the 7th and 8th grade levels. Colombia, Kuwait, Iran, and South Africa ranked among the lowest-scoring countries in both subjects.

The U.S. report, “Pursuing Excellence,” points out that the American students performed on a par with England and Germany in math and did about the same in science as both of those countries plus Canada. It eschews the international TIMSS chart ranking the performance of countries in favor of a narrower field of countries ranking higher than the United States.

The U.S. study says that just three Asian nations--Singapore, Korea, and Japan--and two central European nations--the Czech Republic and Hungary--can be singled out “with confidence” statistically as outperforming the United States in both subjects.

But the analysis also works against the United States when the U.S. report says the American students outperformed students in just four countries in both math and science--Cyprus, Iran, Lithuania, and Portugal.

When comparing other countries with the United States, the margin for error is plus or minus 20 points on the average estimated scores, which run on a 1,000-point scale. But comparisons of the United States against the international average are accurate within a swing of plus or minus 10 points.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 1996 edition of Education Week as U.S. Students About Average in Global Study


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