Dr. Gary W. Phillips
Acting Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics
Pursuing Excellence: Comparisons of International Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement from a U.S. Perspective, 1995 and 1999
December 5, 2000
Good morning. My name is Gary Phillips, the Acting Commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. Today the National Center is releasing the results of a repeat of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS-R). The United States' participation was also funded by our partner, the National Science Foundation. The study being released today was conducted in 1999 and is the successor to the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Both studies were coordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), a Netherlands-based organization dedicated to international comparative studies of education. The international reports were released in Boston this morning at 10:00 am. The report being released now is the United States report titled Pursuing Excellence.
Like its predecessor study, the 1999 survey responds to the U.S. education community's need for reliable and timely data on the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students within an international context. This allows the United States to examine its education system through the prism of other countries' education systems to better understand different approaches to teaching and learning mathematics and science.
The data from TIMSS-R is actually much more comprehensive than the initial findings released today. The total study has four components.
Taken together, these components provide a wealth of cross-national and national information on student performance and the context within which student learning takes place.
Although the 1995 TIMSS reported many interesting findings, possibly the most discussed finding was the declining standing of the United States among the 41 nations as children progress through school. The United States ranked above the international average in math and science in the fourth grade, dropped to the middle of the pack in the eighth grade, and by twelfth grade was among the lowest scoring nations in the world. This was true even of students who took physics and advanced mathematics. As you will see shortly, the 1999 TIMSS-R validated this finding.
The report being released today provides for three sets of international comparisons.
Although it is a bit complicated to have three sets of countries in this report, each set tells its own interesting story.
That said, analysis of TIMSS-R data for the 38 participating nations indicates the following findings:
Because TIMSS-R was specifically designed to allow for comparisons with results from TIMSS four years earlier, comparisons can be made between how our eighth-grade students fared in 1999 and how they fared in 1995. Twenty-three nations participated at the eighth-grade level in both TIMSS and TIMSS-R. This figure shows the average mathematics score for the 23 nations assessed in 1995 versus 1999.
This comparison reveals the following:
Changes in average scores in science achievement among eighth-graders who took the TIMSS test in 1995 and those who took the TIMSS-R test in 1999 show similar results.
The next figure looks only at the subset of 17 nations whose fourth-graders participated in TIMSS 1995 and whose eighth-graders participated in TIMSS-R 1999.
In science, the story appears to be the same.
The available evidence appears to confirm what had been suggested four years ago: that the relative performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science is lower at the eighth grade than at the fourth grade among this group of nations.
In terms of its performance on the assessments relative to other participating nations, the United States has not documented changes in mathematics or science between 1995 and 1999. However, as mentioned earlier, TIMSS-R includes a wealth of data on other areas of interest to researchers, policymakers, educators, and members of the public. In particular, TIMSS-R collected valuable information that can help place the achievement results into a broader context of the teaching and learning of mathematics and science both in and outside of school. Analyses of these data have identified a number of differences between the United States and the other participating TIMSS-R nations on such issues as teacher preparation, teacher attitudes, teaching practices, and classroom activities.
One topic that is of interest to policy makers is the academic preparation of the mathematics teachers of eighth-grade students. Over the last several years, some have argued that it is important for teachers to have subject matter expertise, and one indication of this is a major in subjects they teacher, either at the bachelor's or master's degree level. The mathematics teachers of the students assessed in TIMSS-R were asked to indicate their major or main area of study at the bachelor's or master's degree level. They could choose more than one area of concentration if applicable.
We collected similar information from science teachers. Science teachers often obtained degrees in different content areas of science such as biology, physics, and chemistry.
In addition to asking about the academic backgrounds of teachers, teachers were asked how confident they were to teach mathematics and science as a gauge of their own sense of preparedness.
In addition to exploring the academic preparation and confidence levels of eighth-grade teachers, TIMSS-R collected information from teachers on the topics emphasized most in eighth-grade mathematics and science lessons.
In science in 1999,
TIMSS-R also asked students and teachers about various practices and activities that took place in the classroom. The kinds of activities that students are asked to participate in during lessons can promote and reinforce learning, particularly when combined with a coherent and well-planned curriculum.
The results for science paint a different picture
There were also significant differences in the way in which U.S. students and their international peers were asked to deal with homework in their mathematics and science classes.
Comparisons of the achievement of selected population groups reflect a concern that all students-regardless of race, ethnicity -receive equitable educational opportunities. Has there been any change in the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. eighth-grade white, black, and Hispanic students over the four years?
There is a great deal of other useful information in the report released today by NCES. Briefly, the other highlights are:
In conclusion, there are four points to be made. First, TIMSS-R includes a wealth of information on mathematics and science teaching and learning in 38 nations. The achievement and questionnaire results presented today are only the first findings to be reported from TIMSS-R. Over the next couple years, the Center will continue to provide additional information by reporting on in-depth analyses of achievement data and releasing the findings from the Benchmarking study, the Videotape Classroom Study and the NAEP/TIMSS-R Linking Study.
Second, TIMSS-R is one of several studies of mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students that NCES conducts. In addition to TIMSS-R, NCES conducts the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and participates in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international study of the reading, mathematics, and science literacy of 15-year old students in nations that are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development. Over the next year, NCES will be releasing additional findings from TIMSS-R, as well as from NAEP and PISA. The Center invites everyone to utilize the information provided by each of these projects to the fullest extent possible in efforts to improve the mathematics and science education of all students.
Third, the IEA-the organization that oversees the TIMSS project-has announced its intention to conduct a next TIMSS in 2003. Before making a decision whether or not to commit to participating in TIMSS 2003, NCES and NSF will carefully discuss the opportunity.
Lastly, the effort to carry out and report on TIMSS-R in the United States is the result of a major collaborative effort between NCES and NSF, with support from the Secretary and the assistance of the U.S. TIMSS-R Technical Review Panel. It is the intention of the Center to continue its work with NSF in this endeavor, and to provide researchers, educators, policymakers, and the public with the most up-to-date and relevant information possible.
We would also like to thank the principals, teachers, and students who participated in this study. The positive response of educators to this international study testifies to its value.
Let me also take a moment to acknowledge the authors of this report. I know that they have worked long and hard to get to this day. Authors include: Patrick Gonzales, Christopher Calsyn, Leslie Jocelyn, Kitty Mak, David Kastberg, Sousan Arafeh, Trevor Williams, and Winnie Tsen. Thank you again for your hard work.
Now that the results have been released, I would like to turn to our distinguished guests today. First, Secretary of Education Richard Riley: Secretary Riley is a strong supporter of providing the best possible education to American children, and his support extends to the collection of data like TIMSS-R, which is needed to take measure of the progress that the American educational system has made in improving education for all students.
Next is the Director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Rita Colwell. Prior to becoming Director at NSF, Dr. Colwell has held numerous advisory positions to the government and private foundations. She is a nationally-respected scientist and educator. NSF is a co-funder of TIMSS-R and a key partner in this endeavor, and the Center has very much appreciated Dr. Colwell's strong support.
Finally, I want to introduce the co-chairs of the U.S. TIMSS-R Technical Review Panel, Dr. Susan Fuhrman and Dr. Margaret Cozzens: Dr. Fuhrman is Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the management committee of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), a joint research project on state and local education policies and finance. Her work focuses on education policy and finance as well as state education reform, and state-local relationships, among other areas. Dr. Margaret Cozzens is Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver and professor of mathematics. Dr. Cozzens' work focuses on the improvement of education for all students (preK-graduate school), especially in the areas of mathematics and science, and teacher professional development. Through their leadership of the Technical Review Panel, they and the other members of the TRP have provided critical advice and support of the TIMSS-R project.