Assessment

Study: Nations With ‘Happy’ Students Post Poorer Scores

By Debra Viadero — October 17, 2006 3 min read
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A nation full of students who enjoy mathematics and feel confident in the subject is not necessarily a nation that scores high on international math tests, a report being released this week concludes.

“The 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?” is available from the Brookings Institution.

The report from the Brookings Institution suggests, in fact, that the so-called “happiness factor” in math may be inversely related to achievement. In countries where students express high levels of math confidence and enjoyment, it says, students tend to score below average on international math exams in 4th and 8th grades, and vice versa.

Students in the United States are among the world’s happiest, though their average scores are higher than those for most countries that rate strongly on the “happiness” scale.

“I’m not trying to say we should go out and destroy kids’ confidence,” said Tom Loveless, the author of the annual report and the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington think tank. “What’s clear from these findings is happiness is not everything. Our national obsession with student happiness over academic content may, in fact, be hurting our children when considered in an international context.”

Other scholars, though, saw less cause for concern in the findings for American students.

“We’re scoring above the international average with kids who like math,” said David C. Berliner, an education professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. “That suggests we’re producing enough high-level math students to meet the needs of our economy.”

Mr. Loveless based his conclusions on 2003 results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which tested 4th graders from 25 countries and 8th graders from 46 countries. He compared the test scores with students’ responses to questions gauging their confidence in and enjoyment of math, and teachers’ ratings of the extent to which they made math lessons relevant to real life—strands that Mr. Loveless calls the “happiness factor.”

Sad in Singapore?

Of the 10 countries where 8th graders scored highest on average for confidence in their mathematical abilities, only two—Israel and the United States—scored above average for achievement. More than 40 percent of students in Egypt, Ghana, Israel, and Jordan said that they usually do well in math; students in all of the countries but Israel fell below the international average. The United States, where 22 percent of 8th graders expressed the same level of confidence, ranked ninth.

The bottom 10 countries in self-confidence, on the other hand, include some of the world’s highest-achieving nations in 8th grade mathematics—Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea.

Contrasting Attitudes

Even the least confident 8th graders in Singapore, on average, outscored the most confident American students on an international math test.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Contrasting Attitudes

Note: Data refer only to 8th grade.

SOURCE: TIMSS 2003 User Guide

That pattern was the same, according to Mr. Loveless, among 4th graders and for questions gauging students’ enjoyment of math. Mr. Loveless could find no relationship, though, between math achievement and the degree of relevance in students’ math lessons.

Yet, within countries, the data showed the opposite pattern occurred: The happiest, most confident students were those with the highest test scores.

Mr. Loveless said that paradox may be due partly to differences in how cultures define success. It could also be explained, he said, by what researchers have dubbed the “frog-pond effect.” In other words, students may measure their own abilities against those of their peers.

“A lot of American kids think they’re good in math, and they may be good in the United States,” said Mr. Loveless. “But if they went to another country, their perceptions may change.”

The 29-page report also examines claims that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is prompting states to exaggerate the gains their students are making on state reading tests.

For that part of his study, Mr. Loveless compared five to seven years of data from state tests with states’ 4th and 8th grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal program that periodically tests representative samples of students within states and nationwide. While the state-test scores are higher on average than the NAEP scores, the analysis showed, the gains they report vary by grade level and are not steep enough for states to meet federal targets by 2014, as the law requires.

“There’s no clear evidence,” Mr. Loveless concluded, “that states before or after NCLB did anything different.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study: Nations With ‘Happy’ Students Post Poorer Scores

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