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2006 Spotlight

U.S. Student and Adult Performance on International Assessments of Educational Achievement

How Do U.S. Students and Adults Compare With Their Peers in Other Countries?

Science

Two international assessments measure aspects of science skills. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) focuses on students’ performance on science that they are likely to have encountered in school by grades 4 and 8; and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) focuses on the ability of 15-year-olds to apply science knowledge and skills to a variety of materials with a real-life context.

TIMSS

As noted earlier, TIMSS was administered three times (in grades 4 and 8 in 1995 and 2003 and in grade 8 in 1999) across a range of countries. Closely linked with the curricula of the participating countries, TIMSS provides a measure of the degree to which students have learned concepts that they have encountered in school.

In every science administration, regardless of the measure, grade, or age tested, Japanese students, on average, outperformed U.S. students in science (Lemke et al. 2004; Gonzales et al. 2004). Otherwise, U.S. students’ performance in science is mixed: U.S. students performed better than their international peers in some countries and worse than their peers in other countries.

  • From 1995 to 2003, U.S. 4th-graders showed no measurable change in science performance on average, while 8th-graders showed some improvement.

According to TIMSS, over time U.S. 4th-graders are being outpaced by their international peers in science, while U.S. 8th-graders are making progress (Gonzales et al. 2004).

TIMSS 2003 science results at the 4th grade show that, on average, U.S. students performed above the international average, and had higher average scores than their peers in 16 of the 24 other participating countries (table 8). Students in three countries—Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Japan—outperformed U.S. 4th-graders, on average. Nonetheless, U.S. 4th-graders made no significant progress between 1995 and 2003, and they did not keep pace with improved scores among students in several other countries (Gonzales et al. 2004). Fourth-graders in nine countries demonstrated improvement in their average science scores over this period. Consequently, among the 14 other countries that participated at 4th grade in both years, students in the United States outperformed students in fewer countries in 2003 than in 1995 (8 compared with 13). Taken together, these data suggest that U.S. 4th-graders are not keeping pace with their international peers in science.

U.S. 4th-graders performed above the international average in all three science content areas (life science, physical science, and earth science) in 2003 (Martin et al. 2004). In addition, a greater percentage of U.S. students performed at the advanced TIMSS international benchmark compared with the international average (13 vs. 7 percent), but even so, the percentage of U.S. 4th-graders performing at this level declined from 1995 (when it was 19 percent).

Turning to 8th grade, U.S. students, on average, performed above the international average and had higher science scores than their peers in 32 of the 44 other participating countries in 2003 (table 8). U.S. 8th-graders improved their average science performance between 1995 and 2003, with the gain occurring primarily between 1999 and 2003 (Gonzales et al. 2004). Moreover, the relative standing of U.S. 8th-graders was higher in 2003 than in 1995 in relation to students in the 21 other countries participating in TIMSS in both years. That is, of the countries participating in both 1995 and 2003, U.S. 8th-graders outscored their international peers, on average, in 11 countries in 2003 compared with 5 countries in 1995.

Based on five science content areas measured in TIMSS (life science, chemistry, physics, earth science, and environmental science), U.S. 8th-graders showed improvement in earth science and physics between 1999 and 2003 (Gonzales et al. 2004). In 2003, a greater percentage of U.S. 8th-graders performed at the advanced TIMSS international benchmark compared with the international average (11 vs. 5 percent), though there had been no measurable change in the percentage of U.S. 8th-graders performing at this level in science since 1995.

Differences exist in science achievement within subgroups in the United States. At both 4th and 8th grade, boys outperformed girls in 2003 (Gonzales et al. 2004). Fourth-grade boys’ scores declined from 1995 to 2003 while at 8th grade, both boys and girls showed improvement. White 4th- and 8th-graders had higher average science scores than their Black and Hispanic peers in 2003. At 4th grade, White student scores declined and Black student scores increased from 1995 to 2003. At 8th grade, the average scores of Black and Hispanic students increased between 1995 and 2003, while the average score of their White peers was not measurably different. Thus, the gap between White and Black students decreased at both grades. Further details on the TIMSS science results can be found in Gonzales et al. (2004; available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?
pubid=2005005
) and Martin et al. (2004; available at http://isc.bc.edu/timss2003i/scienceD.html).

PISA

While the primary emphases of PISA have been reading literacy in 2000 and mathematics literacy in 2003, each assessment contained a small section on the other two domains (science and mathematics or reading, respectively). PISA uses the term science literacy to indicate its broader focus on students’ ability to apply their science knowledge and skills to a range of situations they are likely to encounter in their everyday lives.

  • U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the OECD average in science literacy and below the average scores of students in 15 of the 28 other participating OECD countries in 2003.

Based on PISA, U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the science literacy average of the 29 participating OECD countries (table 9). Students in 15 OECD countries had higher average scores than students in the United States, and 6 OECD countries had lower average scores. No information about U.S. performance on specific science topics was available in PISA, but science literacy will be the primary domain covered in 2006, after which detailed information about U.S. performance will be available. Further details on the PISA science literacy results can be found in Lemke et al. (2004; available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/
pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005003
) and OECD (2004b; available at http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/1/60/
34002216.pdf
).

Figures and Tables

Table 8: Average TIMSS science scores of 4th- and 8th-graders, by country: 2003

Table 9: Average PISA science literacy scores of 15-year-olds, by country: 2003

Table SA9: Standard errors for table 8: Average TIMSS science scores of 4th- and 8th-graders, by country: 2003

Table SA10: Standard errors for table 9: Average PISA science literacy scores of 15-year-olds, by country: 2003

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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
U.S. Department of Education