4th Graders Do Well in Math, Science Study

By Millicent Lawton — June 18, 1997 6 min read
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American 4th graders know their math and science well--better than U.S. 8th graders do and well enough to hold their own against high-achieving students around the world, according to the largest international study ever conducted of achievement in those subjects.

Science proved easier than mathematics for the U.S. elementary students, as it had when the performance of middle schoolers was described last fall, results issued last week from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study show.

In science, the score of U.S. 4th graders--the grade level of a majority of the 9- and 10-year-old test-takers--was behind only Korea’s. In what was a statistical dead heat, six other countries shared the spot with the United States. Twenty-six countries participated in the TIMSS testing of primary-grade achievement.

The math achievement of 4th graders, while not as strong, was still above the international average. Seven countries, including Korea, Singapore, and Japan, bested the United States. Six other countries tied for eighth place, with national-average scores not statistically different from those of the United States.

Put in terms of report card grades, American 4th graders earned an A in science and pulled a respectable B-minus or C-plus in math, said William H. Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the U.S. national research coordinator for TIMSS.

“It’s a lot better than it was at the 8th grade,” he said, “and I think that’s worth celebrating.”

The performance of 13-year-olds in 7th and 8th grade, released last November, showed U.S. students stood above the 41-country average in science, but below average in math. (“U.S. Students About Average in Global Study,” Nov. 27, 1996.) Continuing his analogy, Mr. Schmidt said that 8th graders--a majority of those test-takers--had earned a science grade of B-minus or C-plus, but only a C-minus in math.

The United States’ results reflect the performance of 4,000 3rd graders and 7,000 4th graders on two 90-minute tests, one each in math and science, given before the end of the 1994-95 school year. U.S. education officials focused their analysis on 4th and 8th graders. Results from the testing of 12th graders are due out in February.

White House Venue

Although the U.S. release last fall of 8th graders’ mediocre results took place in a Washington hotel ballroom, the good news about the 4th graders was deemed to merit an unveiling at the White House by President Clinton himself. The afternoon before the event, which had been scheduled for months to take place at the National Press Club here, reporters were hurriedly invited to hear the results the next day in the sun-splashed Rose Garden.

“Today is a good day for American education,” Mr. Clinton told a gathering of educators and journalists. But he acknowledged the disparity between the 4th graders’ above-average performance and the 8th graders’ below-average one in math--a divergence in achievement that no other country experienced. “We are doing a very good job in the early grades,” he said, “but we’ve got a lot more work to do in the later ones.”

“We are still nowhere near where we need to be,” the president said, “and all this 4th grade test does is to show us we can be the best in the world if we simply believe it and then organize ourselves to achieve it.”

He called again for states to set high standards by signing on to the new voluntary national tests that he has proposed for 4th graders in reading and 8th graders in math in 1999.

The strong showing by 4th graders in science means that, at least in that category, the United States is “very close to achieving the national education goal of being first in the world,” Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said at a subsequent press briefing. That and other ambitious goals grew out of the Charlottesville, Va., education summit held in 1989 by then-President Bush and the governors, including Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Science Gender Gap

American 4th graders performed better than the international average on all four of the content areas on the science exam: earth science, life science, physical science, and environmental issues and the nature of science.

In math, U.S. students scored above the international average in five out of six content areas, including fractions and geometry. But in the area of measurement, estimation, and number sense, they fell slightly below it.

The study found no gender gap in 4th grade math, but as in nine other countries, American boys scored, on average, 12 points higher than girls did on the scale of 0 to 1,000. Although there was no significant difference between boys’ and girls’ scores on the life science and environmental science sections, U.S. boys significantly outperformed girls in earth science and physical science.

Department of Education officials said the study suggests that no conclusions can be drawn about whether more homework, less television, or smaller class size has an effect on 4th grade student achievement.

Indeed, the 4th grade report from the Education Department, “Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Fourth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context,” draws few conclusions about factors that might explain the strong U.S. showing.

Some nongovernment experts said school reform efforts in math and science, such as emphasizing hands-on, exploratory learning, have had a definite influence. Others, however, were less sure because so little time had elapsed between the 1995 study and the release of reform documents between 1989 and 1993.

Mr. Schmidt, who has done an extensive study of curriculum in the TIMSS countries, said that 4th graders outperformed 8th graders because 4th grade science is the grade-level content area in which the United States is most in sync with international practice. “Our state frameworks, our textbooks, and what teachers actually teach line up well with what’s going on around the world,” he said.

‘Frozen in Time’

The difference between the math and science performance of the 4th graders, Mr. Schmidt said, could occur because the curriculum is better focused in 4th grade science than in math. The math curriculum in the 4th grade, on the other hand, is still “a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said.

One of the most important implications of the study for education policy, Mr. Schmidt said, is the decline in achievement between the 4th and 8th grades. “What happens in the middle school years is, we as a nation fail our children by not providing them with a curriculum that’s focused and consistent with what the rest of the world’s children are doing.”

What other countries consider basic-level material expands as the students mature to include more complex topics in both math and science. In the United States, though, the concept of what is basic “remains somewhat frozen in time,” Mr. Schmidt said. Students here keep learning arithmetic beyond elementary school or never get past an introductory exploration of electricity, he said.

Other countries also don’t begin teaching formal science lessons until the 3rd grade or later, so U.S. students have something of a jump on them, said Senta A. Raizen, the director of the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education.

Another factor that may explain 4th graders’ better performance in science than in math, she said, is the role of science museums and media treatment of science for children, from the magazine Ranger Rick to public television’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

“It’s hard at that age to disentangle school effects from the informal science education or media-surround that they swim in,” she said.


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