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MORE GOOD, LESS BAD, AND STILL NEED FOR IMPROVEMENT: Latest International Test Reveals U.S. Progress in Math and Narrowing Achievement Gaps, but No Improvement in Science

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“Today’s TIMSS results reconfirm what we have long known—if we set high expectations, our children will rise to the challenge,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “I am encouraged that U.S. students are improving, and particularly that many children who were once left behind are now making some of the greatest gains in math. But flat science scores and increasing international competition remind us that we can’t afford to be complacent.”

United States fourth- and eighth-grade students perform better than the international average in math and science according to the results from the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). And, since the test was first given in 1995, math scores at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels have risen. Additionally, the gaps between the average math and science scores of white students and their African American and Hispanic peers have narrowed somewhat. That’s the good news. The bad news is that students’ science scores have stagnated while ugly achievement gaps remain between white students and African American and Hispanic students—both in subjects and grade levels.

“Today’s TIMSS results reconfirm what we have long known—if we set high expectations, our children will rise to the challenge,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “I am encouraged that U.S. students are improving, and particularly that many children who were once left behind are now making some of the greatest gains in math. But flat science scores and increasing international competition remind us that we can’t afford to be complacent.”

In math, eighth-grade students’ average score of 508 was higher than the 492 average score on the 1995 test. In addition, minority students increased their average scores and narrowed the gap between their scores and those of their white counterparts from 1995 to 2007. As demonstrated in the table below, the gap between the average eighth-grade scores of white and African American students shrank from ninety-seven points to seventy-six points, while the gap between white and Hispanic students decreased from seventy-three points to fifty-eight points.

1995 Average Math Score

Gap Versus White Students

2007 Average Math Score

Gap Versus White Students

White

516

N/A

533

N/A

African American

419

-97

457

-76

Hispanic

443

-73

475

-58

 

Compared internationally, U.S. eighth graders’ average score in math was higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500 and placed the United States ninth out of the forty-eight countries that participated, as shown in the table below.

Top Fifteen Average Math Scores of Eighth-Grade Students

Country

Average Score

Country

Average Score

Chinese Taipei

598

United States

508

Republic of Korea

597

Lithuania

506

Singapore

593

Czech Republic

504

Hong Kong

572

Slovenia

501

Japan

570

TIMSS Scale Average

500

Hungary

517

Armenia

499

England

513

Australia

496

Russian Federation

512

Sweden

491

In science, U.S. eighth graders’ average score of 520 was not measurably different from the 513 average score on the 1995 test. Nor was the 551 average score that white students earned measurably different from the 544 average score from 1995. However, because both African American and Hispanic students posted average scores that were significantly higher than in 1995, the gaps between them and their white peers narrowed somewhat.

 

1995 Average Science Score

Gap Versus White Students

2007 Average Science Score

Gap Versus White Students

White

544

N/A

551

N/A

African American

422

-122

455

-96

Hispanic

446

-98

480

-71

 

Compared to their international peers, U.S. eighth graders’ average score in science was higher than the TIMSS scale average (500) and placed the United States eleventh out of the forty-eight countries that participated, as shown in the table below.

Top Fifteen Average Science Scores of Eighth-Grade Students

Country

Average Score

Country

Average Score

Singapore

567

Hong Kong

530

Chinese Taipei

561

Russian Federation

530

Japan

554

United States

520

Republic of Korea

553

Lithuania

519

England

542

Australia

515

Hungary

539

Sweden

511

Czech Republic

539

TIMSS Scale Average

500

Slovenia

538

Scotland

496

 

However, as Mark Schneider, vice president for new educational initiatives at the American Institutes for Research, argues in a recentEducation Week commentary, the United States is doing far worse internationally than TIMSS indicates. He points out that the list of countries that participate in TIMSS is considerably different from the countries that participate in the other leading international assessment, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to PISA, an assessment of fifteen-year-old students sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States fares far worse, placing twenty-first out of thirty OECD countries in science and twenty-fifth in mathematics.

“The 30 countries that make up the OECD represent the largest and most advanced economies in the world, who better represent our trading partners and our competitors than does the list of countries in TIMSS,” he writes. “Only about half the OECD countries took part in the 4th grade TIMSS, and only about a third of them participated in the 8th grade assessment.”

TIMSS, on the other hand, only includes about a dozen OECD countries, and a handful of high-performing non-OECD countries such as Chinese Taipei and Singapore. However, as Schneider notes, the TIMSS average also includes many less-developed countries, such as Jordan, Romania, Morocco, and South Africa. “Including these low-performing countries in the calculation of the international average drives down that average, improving the relative performance of our students,” he writes.

More information on the TIMSS, as well as the complete results, is available at http://nces.ed.gov/timss/.

Mark Schneider’s complete commentary is available at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/12/04/15schneider.h28.html.

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