U.S. Test Scores Surpass International Average, New Data Show

January 04, 2013 7 min read
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A fresh set of global achievement data seems to offer something for everyone in U.S. education circles.

The United States is consistently above the average of participating nations. But it falls far short of some East Asian countries in math and science. And, while the country made some gains in 4th grade reading and math compared with the last time the assessments were administered several years ago, U.S. 8th graders appear stuck.

Then there’s the issue of squaring those results with the less-flattering outcome from global data issued two years ago, which had the United States either on par with the international average or, in the case of science, below it.

The new results, issued last month, inspired a blog hosted by the STEM advocacy group Change the Equation to feature a glass of water that, depending on one’s perspective, was half full or half empty. The post offered some evidence for both perspectives.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a similar reaction.

These 2011 international assessments provide both encouraging news about our students’ progress and some sobering cautionary notes,” he said in a statement. “The encouraging news is that U.S. 4th grade students have made significant progress in reading and mathematics in the last five years, and our 4th graders now rank among the world’s leaders in reading literacy.”

But, he added: “Learning gains in 4th grade are not being sustained in 8th grade—where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve.”

Results were issued Dec. 11 for both TIMSS—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which covers math and science in grades 4 and 8—and PIRLS, or the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which tests 4th graders.

Arguably the best U.S. news came for a few states, including Florida, which in 4th grade reading fell short only of Singapore, and Massachusetts, which outperformed all countries but Singapore in 8th grade science and was near the top in math. (It did not participate in the reading exam.)

More alarming to some observers was the fact that nearly half of all students tested in South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan reached the “advanced” level in math on TIMSS, compared with only 7 percent of American test-takers.

“One obvious stark take-away of some concern in a global environment is the huge gap that the Asian countries have achieved in mathematics,” said Ina V.S. Mullis, the co-executive director of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College. She said that gap has persisted since the exam began in 1995.

Russia, Quebec, Hong Kong, and Japan also outscored the United States by statistically significant margins in 8th grade math.

In one notable twist that has sparked discussion, Finland, which drew international acclaim two years ago for its strong results on a different global assessment, did not produce the same standout results in math on TIMSS.

Its 4th and 8th grade scores were about the same as the U.S. average, and several U.S. states participating in the exam—including Massachusetts and Minnesota—posted higher scores. Although Finland’s performance in science and reading was stronger, and above the global average, Florida scored about the same in reading, and Massachusetts did so in science.

In all, 63 countries and 14 regional jurisdictions took part in TIMSS 2011, though not all took exams at both grade levels. TIMSS is administered every four years.

Near Top in Reading

On the 2011 PIRLS, meanwhile, American 4th graders made considerable gains. The U.S. average climbed 16 points, from 540 to 556 on a 0-to-1000-point scale, well above the PIRLS average of 512. This average, calculated by Education Week, includes 45 participating countries and education systems. It does not count results for nine “benchmarking” education systems that also participated, such as Florida and three Canadian provinces, as well as several countries that tested 6th graders.

Of all participants, only Finland, Hong Kong, Russia, and Singapore scored above the U.S. average.

For the first time, a U.S. state, Florida, took part in PIRLS and outperformed every country and all but one jurisdiction.

Florida joins some other participants in PIRLS and TIMSS that are referred to as “education systems,” since they are parts of countries. Hong Kong, an administrative region of China, was the only participant to outscore Florida. The state also outscored the U.S. average.

Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which analyzes the U.S. results, said he saw positive signs in how the United States is progressing compared with other nations.

“I tend to be quite optimistic on where the U.S. performs internationally,” he said. “We have a large and diverse set of kids to educate, and I think the results show we are doing quite well.”

On TIMSS, with results available for 4th and 8th grade math and science, U.S. students improved by a statistically significant margin in just one category, 4th grade math, since 2007. The average score in that category rose by 12 points, to 541 on the TIMSS scale.

That compares with a TIMSS average of 491 across 50 countries and education systems in 4th grade math. (This average excludes seven benchmarking systems, as well as three countries that tested 6th graders.) As with PIRLS, scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 1000.

The United States trailed seven nations and jurisdictions in 4th grade math: Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Ireland, and Flemish Belgium. Among the many countries the United States outpaced in the subject were Germany, Ireland, Hungary, and Australia.

In science, some of the same countries topped the United States at both grade levels, including South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and Russia. In grades 4 and 8, Finland also outscored the United States; Slovenia eclipsed the United States in grade 8.

The TIMSS data contrast to some extent with the high-profile results issued two years ago from PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. On PISA, which tests 15-year-olds, U.S. students trailed the average in math for the 34 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, though the United States for the first time reached the OECD average in science, and it scored on a par with that average in literacy.

Economic Competitors

Experts say several factors may help explain differences in the U.S. performance on PISA, including the pool of countries taking part. Although the participants overlap significantly, they are not identical.

The international averages for PISA are based on a set of industrialized nations from the OECD (though some other countries participate); the TIMSS average includes a number of less-developed nations on the lower end of the achievement scale, such as Morocco, Yemen, and Indonesia, that help push the average downward.

“The OECD countries are for the most part our chief economic partners and our competitors,” Mr. Buckley said in a conference call last month with reporters. “They tend to be wealthier nations.” The TIMSS average includes “fewer of our wealthiest competitors ... and is a more diverse group of countries,” he said.

Another difference is that PISA tests 15-year-olds, while TIMSS gauges 4th and 8th graders, Mr. Buckley noted. Also, the exams themselves are very different.

“TIMSS and PIRLS are curriculum-based assessments,” said Michael O. Martin, the co-executive director of the International Study Center at Boston College. “They try to assess what is being taught in schools. ... PISA has a more skills-based approach, [focused on] transitions to the work world.”

State Results

Nine U.S. states opted to provide big enough samples of students to be directly compared with participating nations on TIMSS, though only Florida and North Carolina did so in grade 4.

The biggest standout was Massachusetts, which was especially strong in science, with an average score of 567. The only nation to score higher was Singapore, while South Korea and Taiwan were not measurably different. A full one-quarter of Massachusetts students reached the advanced level. (In Singapore, the figure was 33 percent.)

Minnesota, with an 8th grade science score of 553, was outperformed only by Singapore and Taiwan.

As a “trends” report, TIMSS has results for some countries, including the United States, dating back to 1995. Although U.S. scores in 4th grade science are flat compared with those in 1995, in 8th grade science as well as math at both levels, students have posted statistically significant gains.

In math, the U.S. score jumped 23 points, to 541, in grade 4; it rose 17 points, to 509, in grade 8.

But the U.S. gains were no match for those made by some other countries. In 4th grade science, where U.S. results have been flat, the nations with the biggest gains were Iran (up 73 points, to 453), Portugal (up 70 points, to 522), and Singapore (up 60 points, to 583).

Portugal was also a standout in 4th grade math, with its score spiking by 90 points since 1995, the largest increase of any nation across TIMSS grades and subjects. With that increase, to 532, it is only 9 points shy of the United States.

Assistant editor Catherine Gewertz contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as U.S. Students Exceed International Average, But Lag Some Asian Nations in Math, Science


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