U.S. Gets Better Showing on Latest International Math and Science Exam

By Sean Cavanagh — December 14, 2004 6 min read
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Less than a week after a major international study cast doubts on the problem-solving abilities of teenagers in the United States, a second nation-by-nation comparison offers what some regard as a more encouraging view of younger Americans’ grasp of mathematics and science.

Fourth and 8th graders in the United States scored above international averages in both math and science on the third version of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which was released here Dec. 14.

The TIMSS assessment seeks to measure students’ mastery of specific content they have learned in science and mathematics classes. In doing so, the study contrasts with the goal of a separate international comparison released Dec. 6, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which gauges 15-year-olds’ abilities at applying math skills to real-world contexts. U.S. students scored below international averages in mathematical literacy and problem-solving on that test (“U.S. Students Fare Poorly in International Math Comparison,” Dec. 7, 2004.)

Yet the new TIMSS results also show that despite U.S. students’ beating international averages, relative to other countries, the standing of American 4th grade pupils in mathematics and science declined between 1995 and 2003. The relative standing of U.S. 8th graders compared with their international peers improved during that time.

The results from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study are posted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“While their scores are better, the fact is they’re not keeping up with their peers in other nations,” said Eugene W. Hickok, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, at an event here to announce the results. At the elementary school level, he said, “we need to continue to climb that mountain.”

Pointing to the rise in scores among minority subgroups, Mr. Hickok said he believed that U.S. reforms such as the No Child Left Behind Act were having an effect. But he also said that U.S. officials need to do much more to improve the quality and consistency of mathematics and science instruction and make the teaching profession an appealing one to young people—a trend that is occurring in many of the top-performing TIMSS countries.

But on the heels of the discouraging PISA results, some U.S. education and testing officials said they were generally heartened by the findings for TIMSS—particularly those that showed 4th and 8th graders and some minority groups had improved in various categories since the mid-1990s.

“American kids are doing better at the math that’s taught to them in school, and the achievement gap is closing,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and policy organization. “The TIMSS findings are good news.”

Mr. Jennings cautioned that education officials in the United States need to consider the results of both tests, as well as recent trends in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which focuses solely on students in the United States, to judge the overall progress of American students.

The public’s ability to make sense of the data, he added, will not be helped by the one-two release of PISA and TIMSS, a sequence that will likely leave many Americans wondering whether their schools are improving or declining. Education leaders in the United States would be wise to acknowledge some progress, Mr. Jennings said, while also using the PISA results to consider whether students need to be taught more of the problem-solving skills that PISA measures.

Others, however, saw little reason for optimism in the TIMSS results. Ross Weiner, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that focuses on raising achievement for all students, noted that children in the United States were still being outperformed by students from many industrialized countries in science and math. He attributed that stagnation partly to a lack of consistent standards among states and school districts for what students should know.

Above Average, Below Asia

“It comes down to our unwillingness to get serious about a few systematic problems,” said Mr. Weiner, who also pointed to deficiencies in teachers’ content knowledge in math, particularly in middle schools.

In math, U.S. 4th graders scored an average of 518 on TIMSS, higher than the international average of 495. The United States ranked 12th out of 25 industrialized and developing countries participating in that portion of the study. Asian countries dominated the mathematics results for that age group, with Singapore taking a top score of 594, followed by Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, then Belgium, the Netherlands, and Latvia.

Eighth graders in the United States also fared well in math, scoring 504, above the international average of 466, making it 20th out of 45 nations in that category. Singapore, with an average score of 605, again ranked highest at that grade level, followed by South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

But while U.S. 8th graders improved from their results on earlier tests conducted four and eight years ago in mathematics and science, Mr. Weiner noted that scores among 4th grade pupils were stagnant. The U.S. results for math were also less encouraging when compared only against nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental group representing industrialized countries. American 4th graders ranked sixth out of children in 11 nations in math, while 8th grade students ranked 11th out of 13 countries belonging to the OECD in that subject.

Minority Students’ Scores Rise

The TIMSS results reflect efforts by states and schools to improve the basic mathematical skills of low-performing students, as well as their attempts to introduce subjects such as algebra at earlier grade levels, said Phil Daro, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research organization in Washington. “It’s good to see that investment paying off,” Mr. Daro said. Compared with other industrialized countries, particularly Japan, the U.S. education system spent far more time encouraging students to memorize mathematical concepts through repetitive drills and activities, according to Mr. Daro, who has studied textbooks and curricula in Asian countries. The benefits of Japan’s more streamlined, conceptual approach to instruction were evident in that country’s high scores on both PISA and TIMSS, he said.

“We can’t look to our past [performance] to judge how we should be doing,” Mr. Daro said. “We should be looking at our competition.”

In science, U.S. 4th graders outperformed an even greater percentage of their global peers, scoring a 536, above the average 489. That placed the United States ninth out of 25 countries participating in that section of the test, and fourth out of 11 industrialized nations. U.S. 8th grade students scored 527, also better than the international average of 473, ranking them 12th out of their peers in 32 nations and eighth out of 13 industrialized nations participating

TIMSS generally puts a greater emphasis on factual knowledge of mathematics and science than does PISA, which requires more critical thinking by students, according to an analysis provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education branch that administers both tests in the United States. For 4th grade pupils, TIMSS is a 72-minute assessment, which was given to 248 randomly selected schools and 10,795 pupils; the 8th grade test takes 90 minutes and was administered at 232 schools, to 8,912 students.

Minority students in the United States showed improvement in several categories. Scores for African-American students in both the 4th and 8th grades increased from the TIMSS results in 1995, two testing cycles ago. Among Hispanic students, 8th graders improved in math, but the younger students did not. In science, black students improved their scores in both grades between 1995 and 2003, while Hispanic 4th graders’ scores declined slightly and 8th grade students’ scores improved.

“That is encouraging,” Mr. Daro said. “There’s a lot of interest in [improving the skills of struggling students] in mathematics in the same way there has been in the past in reading.”

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