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Topic: TIMSS: Student Achievement
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
TIMSS: Student Achievement
Posted: Feb 9, 1999 11:17 AM
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[From Policy Brief - What the Third International Mathematics and Science
Study (TIMSS) Means for Systemic School Improvement, The National Institute
on Educational Governmance, Finance, Policymaking, and Management and the
Consortium for Policy Research in Education, U.S. Department of Education,
Washington, D.C., November, 1998, pp. 1 - 3. For sale by the U.S.
Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Mail Stop SSOP,
Washington, D.C. 20402-9328 -- the cost is $5.00. ISBN 0-16-049826-0.]

What TIMSS Says About Student Achievement

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the
largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous international comparison of
education ever done. In 1995, TIMSS tested the mathematics and science
knowledge of half a million students at 3 different grade levels in 41
countries. Participating countries had to follow strict quality control
procedures to ensure that samples of students accurately represented each
nation's student population, that tests were properly monitored, and that
comparisons were fair. The 8th-grade results were released in November
1996, the 4th-grade results in June 1997, and the 12th-grade results in
February 1998.

TIMSS represents a great stride forward in international comparative
research. It gives a more complete and accurate picture than any previous
study of how American students perform compared with their peers in Japan,
Germany, England, Canada, Russia, Korea, and many other countries. Through
a close examination of curriculum and instruction, TIMSS also provides new
information about why our students perform as they do. To understand the
curriculum as it is intended to be taught, TIMSS researchers studied
curricular frameworks, textbooks, and other materials of participating
nations and surveyed their educational authorities. To understand the
curriculum as it is actually taught, TIMSS researchers surveyed teachers
and students and conducted classroom observations. An integral part of
TIMSS research was a videotape study of real teachers teaching eighth-grade
mathematics in the United States, Japan, and Germany. These 230 hours of
videotaped lessons offer an unprecedented inside look at instructional
practices in different countries.

In short, TIMSS has collected a wealth of information with significant
implications for educators, policymakers, and anyone else interested in
school reform. TIMSS can help the United States address fundamental issues
about what our students are learning, what our teachers teach and how they
teach relative to other countries, and how we can improve instruction for
all our students.

In order to use TIMSS to guide improvement at the state and local level,
policymakers and educators must first understand what TIMSS says about
science and mathematics achievement for the whole nation. The general story
of TIMSS is that U.S. students start out performing at high levels in
fourth grade, but by the time they approach high school graduation they are
performing at unacceptably low levels in both science and math.

The best performance for U.S. students came from our fourth-graders. On the
fourth-grade TIMSS test administered in 26 countries, U.S. students scored
near the top in science and above the international average in mathematics
(NCES, 1997). In science, our fourth-graders were outperformed only by
Korea, while 5 other countries scored in the same statistical range as the
United States. In mathematics, 7 countries scored above our fourth-graders,
while 6 were in the same range, and 12 scored below.

On the eighth-grade TIMSS assessment, U.S. students scored somewhat above
the international average in science and somewhat below average in
mathematics (Peak, 1996). Our eighth-grade science scores are in the same
range as those of Germany, England, Canada, and Russia. In eighth-grade
math, the United States outperformed only seven other countries, none of
which is a major economic competitor. Five high-performing
nations-Singapore, Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic, and Hungary-did better
than the U.S. eighth-graders in both science and math.

On the 12th-grade TIMSS assessment, U.S. students performed among the
lowest of the 21 participating nations on tests of general knowledge in
science and math (NCES, 1998). Only Cyprus and South Africa scored
significantly lower than the United States on these general tests. In
science, our 12th-grade scores were in the same overall range as those of
seven other countries, including Italy, Germany, France, and Russia, while
in math our scores were about the same as those of four other countries,
among them Italy and Russia. (The Asian nations chose not to participate in
the 12th-grade study.) The TIMSS study also gave tests in physics and
advanced mathematics (pre-calculus and beyond) to students who had studied
these subjects. On these tests, the advanced U.S. 12th-graders performed
among the lowest of the TIMSS nations.

TIMSS also shows how well students perform in various content areas of math
and science (Peak, 1996; NCES, 1998; NCES, 1997). For example, U.S.
students do relatively well in earth science and life science at both the
4th- and 8th-grade level (the 12th-grade test did not break-out results in
this way). U.S. eighth-graders are lagging in geometry, which most of them
have not studied yet, and in chemistry and physics topics. And the results
of the advanced 12th-grade tests suggest that even our best students are
weak in physics and in calculus, geometry, equations, and functions.

Two main messages emerge from these results. First, U.S. students don't
start out behind; they fall behind (Schmidt et al, 1996). U.S.
fourth-graders do well in math, and in science they are close to achieving
the governors' goal of being first in the world-the National Education Goal
many people thought would be hardest to reach when it was set in 1989. But
then achievement drops considerably across the grades in both subjects, so
by 12th-grade our students are performing near the lowest performing
nations. In fact, the United States is the only TIMSS nation that went from
above average in math in fourth grade to below average in eighth grade.

The second key message of TIMSS is that by the time our students complete
their formal secondary schooling, they are not achieving at the
international standards demanded by a global labor market. Our relatively
poor performance in 12th-grade math and science is particularly
disappointing for a country that aims to be a world economic leader.

The TIMSS student achievement data can help give national urgency and focus
to U.S. school improvement efforts. We clearly need to make dramatic,
rapid, and fundamental improvements in math and science education,
particularly in our middle schools and high schools. We need to have higher
expectations of our students and better prepare them to meet these
expectations. These and other policy implications are explored in more
detail in the chapters that follows.

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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