Global STEM Achievement Ups and Downs Since 1995

By Erik W. Robelen — December 12, 2012 3 min read
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Iran, Portugal, and Singapore might not have a lot in common, but here’s one thing they share: All have seen their 4th grade science scores skyrocket since 1995. That’s based on the new results issued yesterday from TIMSS, the Trends in International Math and Science Study.

The same isn’t true, however, of the United States. The scores of our 4th graders in science are about the same as in 1995.

Meanwhile, some participating countries and jurisdictions have seen their scores slip in particular subjects and grade levels, including Sweden, Norway, Japan, and Alberta, Canada.

There are lots of data to mine in the TIMSS report beyond a simple snapshot of how nations stack up today. See this EdWeek story for an overview. In this post, I’ll probe achievement changes since the assessment was first administered in 1995. Some countries are up, some down, and some are stuck back where they started in the mid-90s.

First, to be clear, U.S. students have made some gains on TIMSS. Here’s a quick synopsis, comparing 1995 with 2011. (The TIMSS scale runs from 0 to 1,000, with 500 being the international average.)

  • 4th grade science: Statistically flat at 544
  • 8th grade science: Up 12 points to 525
  • 4th grade math: Up 23 points to 541
  • 8th grade math: Up 17 points to 509

Despite some improvements indicated over the long term, the United States only made statistically significant gains in 4th grade math compared with 2007, when TIMSS was last administered.

Returning to 4th grade science, Iran, Portugal, and Singapore have posted the biggest gains since 1995. (That’s out of 20 nations and jurisdictions that had data for both that year and 2011.)

Iran saw the largest bump, 73 points, but with a score of 453, it’s still far behind the global TIMSS average. Portugal shot up by 70 points to a score of 522.

As for Singapore, what may surprise some readers is that this nation, now at the top of the global pack on TIMSS (in all grades and subjects), actually trailed the United States by 19 points in 4th grade science back in 1995.

Some of these same changes in TIMSS results caught the eye of the blog over at Change the Equation, a STEM advocacy coalition of corporate CEOs.

“Some might think those high-flying Singaporeans are just wired to be better at science than we are, but our 4th graders outperformed theirs by a pretty wide margin in 1995,” Change the Equation notes. “Yet Singapore surged ahead a stunning 60 points in 16 years and left us in the dust.”

That said, Singapore’s score on 4th grade science in 1995 was something of an outlier at the time for the country, it seems. The island nation was already a top performer in 8th grade science, and has climbed a far more modest 10 points since 1995. Much the same is true for Singapore in math. In fact, its 8th grade score in the subject is statistically the same as 1995, though at 611, it’s up at the top of all nations. (Singapore also is a top performer in reading, based on new global data from PIRLS, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

If Portugal’s gains in 4th grade science seemed impressive, the nation did even better in 4th grade math, with an increase of 90 points on TIMSS. That’s the biggest increase of any nation and brings its average score up to 532, only 9 points shy of the United States. The next two in line were England, up 58 points to 542—statistically no different from the United States—and Slovenia, gaining 51 points to 513.

Several U.S. states made robust gains in 8th grade math, when comparing results for 1999 with 2011. Foremost was Massachusetts, which increased by 48 points, to 561. North Carolina increased 42 points, and Minnesota 27 points. (For a closer look at state results on both TIMSS and PIRLS, check out this blog post by my colleague Andrew Ujifusa over at State EdWatch.

Sadly, some nations have lost ground over time. One glaring example is Sweden, which has seen its 8th grade math scores plummet by 56 points since 1995, when it actually was above the United States. Sweden also dropped 43 points in 8th grade science. Japan, too, has declined by 11 points in 8th grade math since 2011. The Canadian provinces of Quebec and Alberta also have seen substantial declines of 25 and 22 points respectively. (In the case of Alberta, it outperformed the United States in 1995 but has since fallen behind.) Norway, meanwhile, has dropped 24 points.

Ultimately, Change the Equation finds some reasons for encouragement in the ups and downs revealed in the results over the long haul.

“If there’s any lesson in all of this, it’s that nationality is not destiny,” the group writes on its blog. “Countries can shape their own fate. It’s time to dig in to those results and figure out what we should do to shape ours.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.