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2009 Spotlight

U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement

Science results for 4th- and 8th-graders

The 2007 TIMSS results showed that U.S. students' average science score was 539 for 4th-graders and 520 for 8th-graders (tables 7 and 8). Both scores were above the TIMSS scale average, which is set at 500 for every administration of TIMSS at both grades. The 4th-grade average score reflects the fact that U.S. 4th-graders' performed above the TIMSS scale average in all three science content domains (life science, physical science, and Earth science) in 2007 (Gonzales et al. 2008, table 14). The 8th-grade average score reflects the fact that U.S. 8th-graders performed above the TIMSS scale average in three of the four science content domains (biology, chemistry, and Earth science) but in physics they scored not measurably different from the TIMSS scale average in 2007 (Gonzales et al. 2008, table 15).

Fourth-graders in 4 countries (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, and Japan) scored above their U.S. peers, on average (table 7). The top 10 percent of U.S. 4th-graders scored 643 or higher, a cutpoint score below that of the top 10 percent of 4th-graders in Singapore and Chinese Taipei, while the bottom 10 percent scored 427 or lower, a cutpoint score below that of the bottom 10 percent of students in 7 countries. These 7 countries include the 4 with higher average scores, 2 countries with average scores that are not measurably different than the U.S. score, and 1 country with an average score lower than the U.S. score.

Eighth-graders in 9 countries (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, England, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and the Russian Federation) scored above their U.S. peers, on average (table 8). The top 10 percent of U.S. 8th-graders scored 623 or higher, a cutpoint score below that of the top 10 percent of 8th-graders in 6 countries (all of which had higher average scores), while the bottom 10 percent scored 410 or lower, a cutpoint score below that of the bottom 10 percent of students in 8 countries (all of which had higher average scores).

TIMSS has developed four international benchmarks to help analyze the range of students' performance in science within each participating country. 38 As in mathematics, the Advanced benchmark is set at 625 score points for both grades. 39

Fourth-graders reaching the Advanced benchmark demonstrate the knowledge and skills for beginning scientific inquiry. They demonstrate some understanding of Earth's features and processes and of the solar system. They can communicate their understanding of structure, function, and life processes in organisms and classify organisms according to major physical and behavioral features. They demonstrate some understanding of physical phenomena and properties of common materials.

Eighth-graders reaching the Advanced benchmark demonstrate a grasp of some complex and abstract scientific concepts. They can apply knowledge of the solar system and of Earth features, processes, and conditions, and apply understanding of the complexity of living organisms and how they relate to their environment. They show understanding of electricity, thermal expansion, and sound, as well as the structure of matter and physical and chemical properties and changes. They show understanding of environmental and resource issues. Students at this level understand some fundamentals of scientific investigation and can apply basic physical principles to solve some quantitative problems. They can provide written explanations to communicate scientific knowledge.

In 2007, fifteen percent of U.S. 4th-graders and 10 percent of U.S. 8th-graders reached the Advanced benchmark (figures 11 and 12). In comparison, 2 participating countries had a higher percentage of 4th-graders reaching this benchmark (Singapore, with 36 percent reaching this benchmark, and Chinese Taipei, with 19 percent); and 6 participating countries had a higher percentage of 8th-graders reaching this benchmark (ranging from 32 to 13 percent): Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, England, Korea, and Hungary.

Change over time

Among the 16 countries that participated in both the first TIMSS in 1995 and the most recent TIMSS in 2007, at grade 4, the average science score increased in 7 countries and decreased in 5 countries (figure 13). Among the 19 countries that participated in both the 1995 and 2007 TIMSS at grade 8, the average science score increased in 5 countries and decreased in 3 countries (figure 14).

Between 1995 and 2007, there was no measurable change in average score of U.S. 4th-graders in science. Average scores increased during this time in England, Hungary, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Iran, Latvia, and Singapore. Increases in Singapore (63 points) and Hong Kong (46 points) moved their 4th-graders from scoring below their U.S. peers in 1995 to scoring higher than their U.S. peers in 2007. Increases in Latvia (56 points), Hungary (28 points), and England (14 points) moved their 4th-graders from scoring below their U.S. peers in 1995 to being not measurably different than their U.S. peers in 2007.

Scores decreased during this time for 4th-graders in Japan (5 points), Austria (12 points), Scotland (14 points), the Czech Republic (17 points), and Norway (27 points). Of these countries, only Austria changed its position relative to the United States; its 4th-graders moved from being not measurably different from their U.S. peers in 1995 to scoring below their U.S. peers in 2007.

At grade 8, the U.S. average score in science did not measurably change between 1995 and 2007. Average scores increased during this time in Korea, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania. Two of the countries with increases in the average scores of their 8th-graders changed their position relative to the United States: Lithuania and Slovenia. An increase in Lithuania (55 points) moved their 8th-graders from scoring below their U.S. peers in 1995 to being not measurably different from their U.S. peers in 2007. An increase in Slovenia (24 points) moved their 8th-graders from being not measurably different from their U.S. peers in 1995 to scoring higher than their U.S. peers in 2007.

Scores decreased during this time for 8th-graders in the Czech Republic (16 points), Norway (28 points), and Sweden (42 points). The decrease in Norway moved their 8th-graders from being not measurably different from their U.S. peers in 1995 to scoring below their U.S. peers in 2007. The decrease in Sweden moved their 8th-graders from scoring above their U.S. peers in 1995 to scoring below their U.S. peers in 2007.

The next TIMSS assessment will be administered in 2011. More detailed results for TIMSS 2007 can be found in Gonzales et al. (2008; available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2009001) and Mullis et al. (2008b; available at http://timss.bc.edu/TIMSS2007/sciencereport.html). For more information on TIMSS, see http://nces.ed.gov/timss/.


38 See figures 11 and 12 for the cut scores established for all the international benchmarks. For details about the international benchmarks, see Mullis et al. (2008b), chapter 2.
39 The IEA set international benchmarks for TIMSS based on an analysis of score points. The score points for each benchmark remain the same across assessments; however, the configuration of items that define what students reaching a benchmark can do may vary slightly from one assessment to the next. For more details, see appendix A.

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