U.S. Poised to Sit Out TIMSS Test

By Debra Viadero — July 27, 2007 6 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has decided for the first time to sit out an international study designed to show how advanced high school students around the world measure up in math and science.

Mark S. Schneider, the commissioner of the department’s National Center for Education Statistics, which normally takes the lead in managing the U.S. portion of international studies of student performance in those subjects, said budget and staffing constraints prevent his agency from taking part in the upcoming study, which is known as the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study-Advanced 2008.

The study, in which nine countries have so far agreed to participate, will test students taking physics and upper-level math classes, such as calculus, at the end of their secondary school years. It comes as national leaders in the United States are promoting improved math and science education as critical to protecting the nation’s economic edge.

The statistics agency is still overseeing the regular administration of TIMSS, which got under way in the United States this year. The larger of the two studies, the regular TIMSS assesses 4th and 8th math and science achievement in 62 nations.

Taking Part in TIMSS

Only nine countries have signed on so far to participate in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessment of advanced high-school-level mathematics and physics.

Armenia | Iran | Italy
Lebanon | Netherlands | Norway
Russia | Slovenia | Sweden

The subject areas to be covered in the assessment are:

• Algebra
• Calculus
• Geometry
• Mechanics
• Electricity and Magnetism
• Heat and Temperature
• Atomic and Nuclear Physics

SOURCE: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement

It has been 12 years since any major international assessment has looked at the performance of world’s most talented math and science students in high school—a group that is arguably in line to become the next generation of scientists and engineers. Unless another organization steps in soon to take the NCES’ place, advocates for the project say, U.S. students will not be represented in the advanced study at all, depriving scholars of an important source of information on high school math and science preparation.

“We need to look outward in order to better understand our own system,” said Patsy Wang-Iverson, the vice president for special projects at the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation in Stockton, N.J., and the instigator of a campaign to recruit other agencies or organizations to take the statistics agency’s place. “Given all the reports that have come out about the need for the U.S. to remain competitive, I feel this is important.”

November Deadline

Support for Ms.Wang-Iverson’s efforts so far has come from several national groups, including the Washington-based Mathematical Association of America, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, based in Reston, Va., and the American Mathematical Society, in Providence, R.I.

“Not participating in this worldwide assessment will deprive us of data that cannot be gathered through any other means,” Francis “Skip” Fennell, the president of the NCTM, wrote in an April letter to federal lawmakers asking for future funding in support of such projects.

Hans Wagemaker, the executive director of the International Association for Educational Evaluation, the Amsterdam-based group that has directed all of the TIMSS studies, said countries have until the end of November to commit to the study, although field tests are under way this year in some nations.

The nine countries that have already signed up to take part in the study are Armenia, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Slovenia, and Sweden. That number is down from 12 countries that originally expressed interest in the project.

Mr. Wagemaker said Australia, Finland, and Germany decided against participating after they were unable to secure funding for their portions of the study. “U.S. participation may have been helpful, but these decisions are made for a variety of reasons,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “The study is not unraveling and is in good shape and on schedule.”

But the small number of countries participating is one reason the NCES decided to take a pass on the assessment, Mr. Schneider said.

“This is not a big study, and there is some question about what we would actually learn from this,” he said. The cost of U.S. participation has been estimated to run between $3 million and $10 million, depending on the design of the study. Because the NCES has had level funding since 2003, Mr. Schneider said, “the TIMSS 4th and 8th grade has to be our basic priority.”

NCES Decision Backed

Gerald Wheeler, the president of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., said he agreed with Mr. Schneider’s reasoning.

“This is important, but what we’re really in the middle of is improving science and mathematics for all Americans,” said Mr. Wheeler, who is a physicist himself.

However, some scholars said the U.S. portion of the study, if it can be salvaged, can be more important for the light it sheds on high school math and science preparation in this country than it is for examining how the brightest U.S. students measure up against foreign competitors.

“The population you’re talking about represents the potential leaders in mathematics and science for our country and it’s really important to know how to cultivate that population, diversify, and expand it,” said Michael T. Nettles, the senior vice president for the Policy, Evaluation, and Research Center at the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J., which developed a proposal for resurrecting the U.S. study.

He said an even more compelling study might be a longitudinal project that allows researchers to track what happens later on to the students who take high-level math and science courses—determining, for instance, whether they do go on to become scientists and engineers, or whether some of them are taking advanced courses in high school to avoid those subjects in college.

Mr. Nettles said it would also be important to gather a large enough sample of students to examine how particular subgroups, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, fare in advanced math and science classes, and to provide incentives to motivate students taking the tests in the spring of senior year to do their best.

“We could do it in 2008,” he said, “but we could also benefit from having more time to do this kind of study later on.”

Ms. Wang-Iverson said the U.S. study could also show whether American students who take increasingly popular “conceptual physics” classes, which rely less on advanced math, are getting the foundation they need to score high on the international physics test.

Mr. Nettles’ proposal has generated no takers so far. A panel of the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that had been considering the proposal, last week declined to fund it for 2008, according to a well-placed source who requested anonymity.

Officials at the Arlington, Va.-based NSF, citing a policy against discussing proposals that are not approved, said they could not confirm that a decision had been made. As of July 26, Mr. Nettles said the agency had not notified him of any decision.

Technical Challenges

In an interview earlier in the week, Larry E. Suter, the program director for the NSF’s division that handles research on learning, said such a study, while badly needed to fill in knowledge gaps about how advanced math and physics are taught in American high schools, also poses technical challenges that need to be carefully considered.

One is how to determine which students should be labeled “advanced.” In math, for instance, should the testing population be restricted to Advanced Placement calculus, or should students taking trigonometry or Algebra 2 also be included?

A criticism of the 1995 advanced study was that the exam focused heavily on calculus, even though some students had never done coursework in that subject.

The statistics agency’s decision follows approval by Congress—responding to reports from various national commissions—of bills aimed at enhancing the nation’s economic standing and bolstering K-12 math and science education.

The House and the Senate in April approved omnibus bills to increase the content knowledge of prospective math and science teachers, provide professional development for teachers in those subjects, and define what students should know to do well in college and the workplace in all subjects. (“Math-Science Bills Advance in Congress,” May 2, 2007.)

Several members of Congress whose offices were contacted this week did not respond to requests for comment on whether the United States should participate in the TIMSS advanced study.

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.


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