Asians Best U.S. Students in Math and Science

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 09, 2008 7 min read
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American 4th and 8th graders continue to exceed the international average on math and science tests, but are still well behind their counterparts in several Asian nations and trail a few European countries, results released today show.

Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota who took part in the testing program, however, excelled ahead of their peers across the United States. Massachusetts in particular did as well as some of the leading Asian nations in some areas.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, an ongoing assessment program sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, is sure to fuel the discussion about the adequacy of the effort in U.S. schools to improve instruction and curricula in the subjects.

“It’s a good-news, bad-news kind of story. In mathematics, the U.S. is making steady progress, and since 1999, has significantly improved,” said Ina V.S. Mullis, an executive director of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, part of the international association. “However, the gap between the U.S. and top-performing Asian countries is huge, just enormous.”

‘Relative Position’

How Participants Fared

Mathematics and Science Achievement at the 4th Grade

Mathematics Achievement


Science Achievement


Mathematics and Science Achievement at the 8th Grade

Mathematics Achievement


Science Achievement


SOURCE: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

Gains in math among U.S. students over more than a decade parallel efforts to improve instruction in the subject, a focus that has not been evident in science education, according to Stuart Kerachsky, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U. S. Department of Education.

“We’ve kept our relative position to Asian countries, which have been the high fliers,” he said. “We see basically continued strong performance, but nothing that changes where the U.S. stands” internationally.

While school reform efforts have increasingly focused on improving instruction and teacher training in math and science, some experts say those efforts are wholly inadequate.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve seen many reports that say we need to be investing more in science education, yet very little filtered down into the classroom,” said Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va. “What’s important about TIMSS is that we can learn how we’re doing as a country relative to other countries, and where we need to be focusing on. So until this country decides that science is important, results like this shouldn’t be surprising.”

Among the most promising of the results for the United States, 4th graders improved significantly on the math assessment since it was last given in 2003. They scored 529 points on a 1000-point scale, a jump of 11 points. That group scored 539 points on the science test, statistically the same as several years ago. Eighth graders gained a few points over the previous test, to score 508, but the gain was not statistically significant. Since 1995, however, 8th graders have gained 16 points, a significant increase, according to the report.

In science, American 8th graders scored 520 points, a drop since 2003 that was not considered significant.

Singapore; China’s special administrative region of Hong Kong; and Taiwan dominated on the 4th grade tests. They were joined by South Korea and Japan as leaders among the 8th graders. Several developing Eastern European countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Russia, and Slovenia—outscored the United States in some areas.

Exceeding the Average

Both 4th graders and 8th graders in the United States significantly exceeded the international average in the percentages of students who met “intermediate,” “high,” and “advanced” benchmarks in both subjects. But much larger percentages of students in top-performing countries demonstrated advanced understanding of the subjects. On the math test, for example, at least 40 percent of 4th and 8th graders in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the same percent of 8th graders in Taiwan and South Korea, scored at the advanced level.

The TIMSS assessments seek to measure students’ mastery of specific content they have learned in science and math classes, as well as cognitive dimensions, such as knowing, applying, and reasoning. The study contrasts with the goal of a separate international comparison released late last year, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which gauges 15-year-olds’ abilities at applying math skills to real-world contexts. U.S. students tend to perform better on TIMSS than on PISA. (“U.S. Students Fall Short in Math and Science,” Dec. 4, 2007.)

But direct comparisons are potentially problematic, Mr. Kerachsky said, when observers consider the size and diversity of the United States when compared with some of the leaders.

“Turning things around and changing a country that has the diversity of the U.S. is difficult,” he said. Comparing American students with a representative sampling of children in China, as opposed to Taiwan, would likely yield a much different result, he added.

On the 2007 assessment, 425,000 students from 59 countries participated. Eight other “benchmarking” sites, including regional entities in Canada, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S. states of Massachusetts and Minnesota, took part and received results that can be compared with their countries’ data and be used to gauge their achievement on international benchmarks.

Samples of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota who took the tests provided perhaps the best news for the United States. Massachusetts’ 4th graders, for example, scored 571 points on the science test, a score that was outdone only by Singapore, which scored 587. In math, 4th graders from the Bay State scored 572, with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan doing better. At the 8th grade level, only the top-performing Asian countries did better than Massachusetts in either subject.

Minnesota also did significantly better than the United States overall, and outscored the likes of Japan on the 4th grade science test. The state, however, fell behind the other top Asian nations on all the tests.

The success of those two states, some experts say, demonstrates how setting rigorous standards and putting resources into aligning the curriculum and professional development to those standards can lead to improved student achievement.

“Here you have two states that have clear, focused, rigorous math standards and sustained attention to improving teaching and learning, and as a result, Massachusetts is scoring very high and Minnesota at the 4th grade level showed phenomenal gains,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, the Washington-based organization that is studying the academic standards of high-performing countries. “For those who say we can’t compete with some other countries, this calls that into question.”

The gains for Minnesota are particularly impressive, some experts say, when you consider the state did not have standards when the first TIMSS was given in 1995. The state later decided to use the lessons learned from the curriculum studies of TIMSS to create standards that reflect some of the features of the top nations in the world, said William H. Schmidt, the Michigan State University researcher who conducted those studies.

“Minnesota moved from mediocrity to a reasonably elite status. They’re right up there, just underneath the top-tier countries,” he said. “This says yes you can do this, and here’s the way can do this.”

Innovation Counts

Critics of such comparisons, though, have argued that the international test results do not predict a country’s success. Gerald Bracey, a Port Townsend, Wash.-based researcher and author, said that despite the test scores, the United States is ranked atop all nations on indices of global competitiveness, and American workers are deemed the most productive in the world. And the tests don’t necessarily measure such qualities as creativity, ambition, and innovation, for which the United States is noted, he added.

“It has been pointed out that Singapore students fade once they hit the real world,” Mr. Bracey said. “Innovation is the one aspect of economic competitiveness that does not at some point show diminishing returns. Bigger or faster airplanes can only improve productivity so much. Innovation has no limits.”

For the first time, the TIMSS report includes an extensive online encyclopedia that details a number of categories for each country.

“The encyclopedia tries to provide as full a picture as possible of the culture, the curriculum, the goals, and aims of [a nation’s] schools,” said Michael O. Martin, who directs the international-study center with Ms. Mullis. “So you have all that information that is hard to quantify,” he said, but that helps put the data in context.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Asians Best U.S. Students in Math and Science


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