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TIMSS: Student Achievement
Posted:
Feb 9, 1999 11:17 AM


[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. 204029328  the cost is $5.00. ISBN 0160498260.] *********************************************************
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 8thgrade results were released in November 1996, the 4thgrade results in June 1997, and the 12thgrade 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 eighthgrade 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 fourthgraders. On the fourthgrade 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 fourthgraders 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 fourthgraders, while 6 were in the same range, and 12 scored below.
On the eighthgrade TIMSS assessment, U.S. students scored somewhat above the international average in science and somewhat below average in mathematics (Peak, 1996). Our eighthgrade science scores are in the same range as those of Germany, England, Canada, and Russia. In eighthgrade math, the United States outperformed only seven other countries, none of which is a major economic competitor. Five highperforming nationsSingapore, Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic, and Hungarydid better than the U.S. eighthgraders in both science and math.
On the 12thgrade 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 12thgrade 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 12thgrade study.) The TIMSS study also gave tests in physics and advanced mathematics (precalculus and beyond) to students who had studied these subjects. On these tests, the advanced U.S. 12thgraders 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 8thgrade level (the 12thgrade test did not breakout results in this way). U.S. eighthgraders are lagging in geometry, which most of them have not studied yet, and in chemistry and physics topics. And the results of the advanced 12thgrade 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. fourthgraders do well in math, and in science they are close to achieving the governors' goal of being first in the worldthe 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 12thgrade 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 12thgrade 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 629014610 USA Fax: (618)4534244 Phone: (618)4534241 (office) Email: jbecker@siu.edu



