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Topic: National Science Board Meeting: TIMSS
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
National Science Board Meeting: TIMSS
Posted: Jan 31, 1999 6:25 PM
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APPROVED MINUTES (the part of them dealing with TIMSS)



National Science Foundation

Arlington, Virginia

May 6-8, 1998

Members Present:

Richard N. Zare, Chairman; Diana S. Natalicio, Vice Chair

John A. Armstrong ,F. Albert Cotton* , Mary K. Gaillard , Sanford D.
Greenberg, M.R.C. Greenwood , Charles E. Hess, John E. Hopcroft,
Stanley V. Jaskolski*, Eamon M. Kelly , Jane Lubchenco , Shirley M.
Malcom , Eve L. Menger, Claudia I. Mitchell-Kernan , James L.
Powell , Frank H. T. Rhodes, , Ian M. Ross, Bob H. Suzuki , Richard
Tapia , Warren M. Washington

Neal F. Lane, Director

Members Absent:

Vera C. Rubin, Robert M. Solow, John A. White, Jr.
*Attended Thursday only.

Note: The Board, at its 349th meeting, August 12-13, approved the
Provisional Minutes of the Open Session of the 348th meeting.

The National Science Board (NSB) convened in Open Session at 9:35 a.m. on
Thursday, May 7 1998 with Dr. Diana Natalicio, Vice Chair of the NSB,
presiding (Agenda NSB-98-100). Dr. Natalicio announced that Chairman
Richard Zare and the NSF Director would be absent during the morning
session due to a conflict in schedule with a hearing on the NSF budget
before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. In accordance with the
Government in the Sunshine Act, this portion of the meeting was open to the

AGENDA ITEM 3: Presentation on the Third International Mathematics and
Science Study (TIMSS)

Dr. Natalicio introduced Dr. William Schmidt, Professor, College of
Education, Michigan State University and National Research Coordinator and
Executive Director of the U.S. National Center that oversees participation
of the U.S. in the International Association for the Evaluation of
Educational Achievement (IEA)-sponsored Third International Mathematics and
Science Study (TIMSS).

Dr. Schmidt's presentation focused on the findings of TIMSS, the biggest
international study of its kind ever done, involving about 50 countries.
There were three study populations - roughly 4th, 8th, and 12th grade. The
12th grade cohort was defined as the grade at which students leave
secondary school to go to the world of work or on to higher education. He
summarized U.S. performance for all three cohorts. At the 4th grade level
U.S. students, in both mathematics and science, were above the
international average and very close in science to the Governors' and the
President's goal of being number one in the world by the year 2000 in
science. In the 8th grade comparison U.S. students performed at about the
international average. For 12th grade students, comparative performance of
U.S. students dropped from to the bottom of the international distribution,
both for the general population and the population of students taking the
most advanced mathematics and science courses. The U.S. was the only
country to drop from the very top to about average from the fourth to
eighth grades. This decline focuses attention on the middle school years
for mathematics and science education. The most startling of all the TIMSS
results is that even our best students - the top 2-3
percent - are at the bottom of the distribution. When compared to the 20
percent of students in other countries in that advanced track, the one
percent of U.S. students who take advanced placement (AP) physics also end
up below the international average. Dr. Schmidt argued that these results
show that the American education system is not only failing the average
student but the very best students as well. It is a systemic problem
requiring a systemic solution.

Dr. Schmidt reviewed other findings on international comparisons of the
content of for mathematics and science for the three cohorts. He argued
that what is taught in U.S. schools helps us to understand our students'
performance in TIMSS. These comparisons revealed:


Different countries excel in different areas of science, with their
performances correlated with the kinds of science emphasized in their
respective curricula. While no country is number one in all areas, the U.S.
failed to achieve first place standing in any area of science or
mathematics at the 8th grade level. The TIMSS line-by-line analysis of 1500
textbooks and frameworks from all participating countries revealed that
U.S. texts exceed all other countries' texts in the number of topics
covered. U.S. curriculum frameworks are unfocused, highly repetitive lists
of topics for teachers. The 4th grade mathematics curriculum parallels the
rest of the world. But in middle school mathematics, instead of teaching
students algebra and geometry like other countries, U.S. students are
taught arithmetic. In science, other nations teach physics and chemistry;
in the U.S. students continue with earth science and life science. By 12th
grade, only 20 percent of U.S. students have gone beyond geometry. Dr.
Schmidt argued that the U.S. needs a curriculum that is focused, coherent
non-repetitive, and rigorous, especially during middle school to challenge


U.S. teachers' substantive knowledge needs improvement. To improve teacher
preparation requires a defined curriculum, that is not now available. U.S.
universities need a better definition of what is really important in
science to prepare future teachers. Professional development for teachers
needs to help them deal with substance in their classrooms, not process.


Almost every other nation of the world teaches the same mathematics to all
8th grade students. The U.S. differentiates students into a wide range of
choices, some of which preclude them from taking more advanced courses
needed for university level work or certain careers. The U.S. system does
not define a common learning goal for all students. As a result, U.S.
student performance variance is attributable to schools, classrooms, or
tracks, rather than individual variation, as in most other countries.

Dr. Schmidt argued that the performance of U.S. students in mathematics and
science needs to be attacked systemically by articulating a vision of what
all children need to know at every grade level, in a set of national
standards developed by the states working together. The alternative is to
cede control of the curriculum to textbook writers and standardized testing

Board Discussion

In response to a question from Dr. Tapia on why teachers receive their
professional development in education schools rather than in schools of
mathematics or science, Schmidt agreed that teachers do not as a rule have
strong substantive knowledge in science and mathematics and that there
needs to be more cooperation in the university environment among schools in
these areas. Dr. Powell commented that the Board, as the Nation's Science
Board, should focus on making a strong, simple, clear statement. The most
important point would be to affirm the validity of the TIMSS results and
that poor performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science is a
systemic problem, not individual student failure.

Dr. Suzuki asked why the top American students who go on to higher
education and do well, becoming world-class performers in science and
mathematics, even though even the best perform poorly in international
comparisons at precollege levels. He noted that foreign students are drawn
to the U.S. higher education system because it fosters creativity. Dr.
Schmidt replied that in order to be creative, one must have substantive
knowledge, and that a creativity-fostering environment is insufficient by
itself. He suggested as a possible explanation that American universities
may compensate for shortcomings in students' early education by focusing on
serious scholars who are dedicated to their disciplines and involved in
research. Many students who might have done well are discouraged from
participating in science and mathematics in college by their poor
experience at earlier grades.

In response to a question from Dr. Armstrong about the superficiality of
mathematics and science standards, Schmidt said that standards developed by
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Academy of Sciences
(NAS) all attempt to improve the coherence of the curriculum by organizing
it around major concepts. Most countries, by the end of grade 12 or 13,
have covered the same number of topics. The U.S. is not covering more than
other nations, just trying to do everything in every grade. In Scandinavian
countries, students study physics in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades - building
depth by focusing on different topics in physics each year. Dr.
Schmidt noted that in the United States, the State of Texas science
standards have such focus.

Dr. Cotton questioned Dr. Schmidt's statement that local control is part of
the problem of the U.S. education system, since textbooks that guide what
is taught in classes come from outside the local school system. Dr. Schmidt
noted that, because there is little agreement among localities on
curricula, textbook writers cover all possible topics so that they can sell
their texts to a national customer base. When school districts purchase the
books, many teachers try to teach all topics covered. A national set of
standards would result in a more focused text as a framework for teaching.

Dr. Malcom noted Dr. Schmidt's observation that once standards needed for
K-12 are defined the standards K-12 teachers and higher education curricula
for teachers are also, de facto, defined. She argued that, without a
licensing and certification process that assures that teachers are able to
meet standards that enable them to teach students what they are expected to
know, students will not be given an adequate opportunity to learn. This is
a difficult issue, both for higher education and for NSF systemic reform
efforts. Until the content knowledge needed by middle grade teachers is
defined, there is a problem. On a positive note, she pointed out one area
where the U.S. system is performing well in international comparisons,
namely that TIMSS shows no gender gap in the performance of students at 4th
and 8th grades in the U.S. Racial and ethnic differences in performance
after the first few years are still disappointing, however.

Dr. Schmidt responded that, for example, in the various algebra tracks,
there is a "dumbing down" of the curriculum that is related to social
class, race, and ethnicity, i.e., algebra in some U.S. schools, especially
in disadvantaged areas, is not what most countries teach as algebra. He
agreed that the Nation needs to decide whether middle school is to be the
end of elementary school or the beginning of secondary school in defining
certification requirements for teachers.

Replying to Dr. Lubchenco's request for an explanation for the
above-average performance of U.S. students at 4th grade, Dr. Schmidt noted
that, though the U.S. is not at the top in mathematics for those grades, it
performs well. The U.S. 3rd and 4th grade curriculum corresponds to the
curricula used in other countries. He noted that NCTM has pushed geometry,
statistics, and data analysis in the early grades and speculated that it
seems to be making a difference at the 4th grade level. In science, the
U.S. was also near the top, perhaps due to a relatively early start in
teaching science compared to other countries, science television shows, and
museums with programs targeted at young children. In mathematics, the U.S.
is not at the top for those grades.

In response to Dr. Greenwood's comment that in her experience some teachers
select a subset of items from the curriculum and textbook to teach, Dr.
Schmidt responded that TIMSS teacher data show that very few teachers
follow that procedure, and those who do tend to be in more affluent
districts that attract better quality teachers. With respect to another
question by Dr. Greenwood, Dr. Schmidt noted that TIMSS did not collect
indicators of classroom discipline but that schools did report
discipline-related data. For those measures, U.S. schools report more
tardiness and absenteeism than most other nations.

Responding to a question from Dr. Ross on the role of the Scholastic
Aptitude Test (SAT), Dr. Schmidt noted that the SAT covers thousands of
topics in a very shallow fashion. The broadness of the SAT creates an
incentive for schools and teachers to follow a broad, shallow curriculum.
European countries test for achievement rather than general aptitude and
exams feature 3-5 questions that students answer in depth.

Responding to questions from Dr. Washington, Dr. Schmidt reported that U.S.
statistics show remarkably large movement of students between school
districts compared to other countries. He concluded that this transience
underscores the need for national curriculum standards, since children who
move from place to place miss certain topics and repeat others.
Extracurricular courses may have some effect, but the school is the primary
determinant of performance.

Responding to a question from Dr. Rhodes on the obstacles to achieving some
kind of national standards, Dr. Schmidt noted his meetings with the
President, the 35 Republican governors, members of Congress, State
legislators and school boards on this issue, and expressed the opinion that
the chief obstacle is the sentiment among parents and local school
districts that the Federal government should not be involved in setting the
curriculum. However, he noted, once the case for standards is presented as
a need for a national consensus so that children will not be shortchanged
in their education, resistance to national standards declines. Dr. Schmidt
concluded that the Board, as a prestigious, nonpartisan group of
scientists, could be effective if it chose to speak on these issues. He
noted ongoing efforts among states and private corporations to cooperate on
these issues.

Board members thanked Dr. Schmidt for his excellent presentation.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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