From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Tuesday, December 11, 2012, Volume 32, Issue 15. See
U.S. Math, Science Achievement Exceeds World Average
By Erik W. Robelen
The math and science achievement of U.S. students continues to surpass
the global average for nations taking part in a prominent assessment,
results issued Tuesday show, but several East Asian countries and
jurisdictions far outpace the United States, especially in
The most striking contrast comes in the 8th grade, where nearly half
of all students tested in South Korea, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei
(Taiwan) reached the "advanced" level in math, compared with only
7 percent of American test-takers, according to the Trends in
International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, for 2011. [See
"One obvious stark takeaway 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 & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College.
"This is a gap that has its roots in 1995 [when TIMSS was first
administered], and the gap has not narrowed over the years. And in
some cases, such as [South] Korea, it's even widening."
The Russian Federation, Quebec, Hong Kong, and Japan also outscored
the United States by statistically significant margins in grade 8
In fact, Russia surpassed the United States in that category for the
first time, thanks to an improvement in its score compared with four
years earlier, while the U.S. average stayed about the same as in
In one notable twist that's likely to spark debate, Finland, which
drew international attention and acclaim two years ago based on its
strong results on a different global assessment, did not produce the
same standout results in math on TIMSS. Its 4th and 8th grade math
scores were about the same as those of the United States, and several
U.S. states participating in the exam-including Massachusetts and
Minnesota-posted higher scores.
SIDEBAR: Math Achievement -- U.S. 8th
graders scored above the international average on the latest TIMSS
assessment for mathematics.
SIDEBAR: Science Achievement -- U.S. 4th
graders scored above the international average on the latest TIMSS
assessment for science.
SOURCE: Trends in International Mathematics and Science
In all, 63 countries and 14 regional jurisdictions (including some
individual U.S. states) participated in TIMSS 2011, which takes place
every four years. Also today, new data from a high-profile global
assessment of literacy was released. This report, Progress in
International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, is focused on 4th
With results available for 4th and 8th grade math and science, U.S.
students have improved by a statistically significant margin in just
one category, 4th grade math, since 2007. The average score in the
category rose by 12 points, to 541, on the TIMSS scale. (Scores are
reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. A score of 500 was the average
for participating nations and education jurisdictions, excluding a
small number of "benchmarking systems" whose scores were not
factored into the average, such as the individual U.S. states that
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 more than 40 entities that the
United States outpaced in the subject were Germany, Ireland, Hungary,
As for science, some of the same countries topped the United States at
both grade levels, including South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan,
and Russia. In both grades 4 and 8, Finland outscored the United
States; Slovenia also eclipsed the United States in grade 8.
TIMSS vs. PISA
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 global average of participating students in math, though the
nation for the first time reached the international average in
Experts note that 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 Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development (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," Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the
National Center for Education Statistics, said during a conference
call Monday 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 is a test explicitly for 15-year-olds,
while TIMSS tests 4th and 8th graders, Mr. Buckley noted.
Finally, the assessments 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."
The 'Finnish Miracle'?
Nine U.S. states opted to provide large enough samples of students so
that they could 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.)
In addition, Minnesota, with an 8th grade science score of 553, was
outperformed only by Singapore and Taiwan.
Mr. Buckley of the education statistics center, a branch of the U.S.
Department of Education, praised the strong performance of such
states. He suggested that U.S. policymakers looking around the world
for lessons on creating a strong education system may want to take a
look closer to home first.
"It's not necessary to travel halfway around the world to see
this," he said.
At the same time, he cautioned that even Massachusetts falls short of
a few global peers when looking particularly at getting more math
students to the advanced level.
"There clearly is some room for improvement, even among our
higher-performing systems," Mr. Buckley said.
Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a
Washington think tank, said in an email that the new results call for
some rethinking of what he calls the "Finnish miracle story."
"If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would
probably score in the middle of the pack," he said, in a reference
to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He said that four
of the U.S. states that participated in the 8th grade
TIMSS-Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana-posted
scores that were higher than Finland's by statistically significant
margins in math, while three more had results that were about the
"Finland's exaggerated reputation is based on its performance on
PISA, an assessment that matches up well with its way of teaching math
(applying math to solve 'real world' problems)," he wrote. "In
contrast, TIMSS tries to assess how well students have learned the
curriculum taught in schools."
At the same time, Finland made a stronger showing than the United
States in 4th and 8th grade science on TIMSS. In the 8th grade, for
instance, Finland scored 552, compared with 525 for the United States.
Measured another way, 53 percent of Finnish 8th graders reached either
the "high" or the "advanced" level, the top two categories,
compared with 40 percent of their peers in the United States.
Even so, Finland's performance fell short of the results for the
top-performing East Asian countries. It also was lower than
Massachusetts' score of 567.
For his part, Mr. Buckley said, "I've always been a little
puzzled" by the high level of attention trained on Finland.
"Finland captured the world's attention for a variety of reasons,"
he said, "but as these results show, there are other places to look
for case studies."
Measuring Student Engagement
With the 2011 report, TIMSS includes a number of new indicators to
better help put student achievement in context. They include
children's learning experiences prior to school attendance, the extent
of students' engagement in math and science lessons, and their
experiences with bullying.
"One thing we've worked on is [getting] better indicators of what
goes on in classrooms," Mr. Martin of the International Study Center
said. "We've sharpened our focus on student engagement. [One]
measure is based on asking students how engaged they feel in their
classroom. That makes a very nice scale that relates to
Another new scale, he said, is based on asking teachers what they do
to engage students.
In a finding that may come as little surprise, students across nations
seem to lose some enthusiasm for math as they get older. Nearly half
(48 percent) of 4th graders said they "like learning mathematics,"
but that slipped to one-quarter (26 percent) by the time they hit 8th
grade. And at both levels, that attitude has a correlation with test
scores. That is, the less students like math, the lower their
achievement, on average.
Another troubling indicator is that, across the globe, students report
a drop in engagement with math lessons as they move from 4th to 8th
grade. And once again, that level of engagement is correlated with a
slip in average scores. The Engaged in Mathematics Lessons scale was
based on responses to five questions, including "I know what my
teacher expects me to do," and "I am interested in what my teacher
Meanwhile, many 4th graders around the world (69 percent) had math
teachers who reported making efforts to use instructional practices
intended to interest students and reinforce learning, such as posing
questions to elicit reasons and explanations, and bringing interesting
items to class. At the 8th grade, however, only 39 percent of students
internationally reported that their teachers frequently related
lessons to their daily lives, and just 18 percent said they had
teachers who routinely brought interesting materials to class.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244