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Jack Buckley
Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics

NCES Statement on PIRLS 2011 and TIMSS 2011
December 11, 2012

Commissioner Jack Buckley's Briefing Slides MS PowerPoint (10.8 MB)

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics is releasing results on the performance of U.S. students on two international studies: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Both of these cross-national comparative studies are coordinated by the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an international organization of national research institutions and governmental research agencies.

The results show improvement at grade 4 in reading since 2006, when PIRLS was last administered, and in mathematics since 2007, when TIMSS was last administered. Eighth-graders’ average scores held steady in both mathematics and science since the last TIMSS administration in 2007, as did fourth-graders’ average scores in science. Nine states participated in TIMSS or both TIMSS and PIRLS in 2011 as separate state samples, as well as part of the national sample, and some of the states had among the top average scores in both studies.

About PIRLS and TIMSS

PIRLS assesses reading literacy at grade 4. TIMSS assesses mathematics and science knowledge and skills at grades 4 and 8. Both studies are designed to align broadly with curricula in the participating education systems. The results, therefore, suggest the degree to which students have learned concepts and skills likely to have been taught in school. PIRLS and TIMSS also collect background information on students, teachers, schools, curricula, and official education policies in order to allow cross-national comparison of educational contexts that may be related to student achievement.

PIRLS and TIMSS are open to countries as well as large subnational education systems. In 2011, 53 education systems participated in PIRLS at grade 4, 57 participated in TIMSS at grade 4, and 56 participated in TIMSS at grade 8. In the reports released today, we use the term “country” to mean complete, independent political entities, whereas “other education systems” represent a portion of a country, nation, kingdom, or emirate, or are other nonnational entities.

In addition to the United States participating as a nation, nine states participated with state samples of public schools and public school students large enough to obtain their own results in TIMSS or both TIMSS and PIRLS: Florida participated in PIRLS, and TIMSS at both grades 4 and 8; North Carolina participated in TIMSS at both grades 4 and 8; and Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Minnesota participated in TIMSS at grade 8.

When comparing state results with those of the United States as a whole, as well as of the other participating education systems, it is important to keep in mind that the state samples include only public schools and therefore are representative only of the performance of public schools in these states. The U.S. national samples, as well as the samples in most other participating education systems, include both public and private schools.
The NCES reports, Highlights from TIMSS 2011: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context (available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2013009) and Highlights from PIRLS 2011: Reading Achievement of U.S. Fourth-Grade Students in an International Context (available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2013010), provide international comparisons of average performance in reading at grade 4 and mathematics and science at grades 4 and 8; average scores by sex for the United States and other education systems; average scores by student race/ethnicity and school socioeconomic contexts within the United States; the percentages of students reaching international benchmark levels; and changes in performance over time.

Note that PIRLS was administered in 2001, 2006, and 2011; the TIMSS grade 4 assessment was administered in 1995, 2003, 2007, and 2011; and the TIMSS grade 8 assessment was administered in 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011. For a number of education systems, including the United States, changes in achievement on PIRLS can be measured over the past 10 years and on TIMSS can be measured over the last 16 years, from 1995 to 2011.

PIRLS 2011 and TIMSS 2011 were administered between April and June 2011 in the United States. The U.S. sample was randomly selected and weighted to be representative of the nation. In order to reliably and accurately represent countries’ performance, countries were required to sample at least 150 schools and at least 4,000 students (in countries having at least that many schools and students). In the United States, a total of 370 schools and 12,726 students participated in PIRLS, 369 schools and 12,569 students participated in TIMSS at grade 4, and 501 schools and 10,477 students participated in TIMSS at grade 8, not including the state samples. Samples in each of the nine states participating in PIRLS or TIMSS also included at least the minimum required number of schools and students.


More information about how the PIRLS and TIMSS assessments were developed and conducted is included in the technical appendices of the U.S. national reports. An additional source of information is the Methods and Procedures website of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center available at http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/methods/index.html.

How PIRLS and TIMSS Results Are Reported

Like other large-scale assessments, PIRLS and TIMSS were not designed to provide individual student scores, but rather national and group estimates of performance. Achievement results from both PIRLS and TIMSS are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. In order to compare performance over time, each administration of the assessments is placed on the same scale, which has a mean of 500 and standard deviation of 100. The scales, mean, and standard deviation, which were established in 1995 for TIMSS and 2001 for PIRLS, are designed to remain constant from assessment to assessment. Countries and other education systems can compare their scores over time to the standardized scale average, as well as compare their scores directly with other countries’ scores.


All differences described using PIRLS and TIMSS data are statistically significant at the .05 level. Differences that are not statistically significant are either not discussed or referred to as “not measurably different” or “not statistically significant.”


In addition to numerical scale results, PIRLS and TIMSS include international benchmarks at four points on the reading, mathematics, and science scalesanAdvanced international benchmark (625), a High international benchmark (550), an Intermediate international benchmark (475), and a Low international benchmark (400). Because assessment items are mapped to each benchmark level, knowing the percentage of students who have reached a benchmark tells you the percentage of students who successfully demonstrated the kinds of skills and knowledge required for answering items at that benchmark level. Descriptions of the kinds of skills and knowledge required for answering items successfully at each benchmark level are provided in the reports.

U.S. Performance in Reading Literacy at grade 4: Results From PIRLS

The average score for U.S. fourth-grade students (556) was higher than the PIRLS scale average, which is set to 500. Of the 52 other education systems participating, 5 had higher average scores than the United States (Hong Kong-China, Florida (participating as an independent entity), the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore), 40 had lower average scores, and 7 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average.

International Benchmarks of Proficiency
The United States had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching each international benchmark than the international median of participating education systems. Seventeen percent of U.S. fourth-graders reached the Advanced international benchmark. Only Singapore and the state of Florida had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching the Advanced international benchmark than the United States as a whole.

Trends in Performance in Reading Literacy
The U.S. average score in reading rose 16 points between 2006 and 2011, and the United States was one of 13 education systems with an increase between 2006 and 2011.

Performance in the Independently Participating States
Florida was the only U.S. state to obtain its own reading results independent of the United States (though Florida also contributed to the U.S. national average). Florida’s average score (569) was higher than that of every other education system, except Hong Kong-China, the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore, all of which had average scores not measurably different from the Florida average.

U.S. Performance in Mathematics at Grade 4: Results From TIMSS

At grade 4, the U.S. average mathematics score (541) was higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500. The United States was among the top 15 education systems (8 education systems had higher averages and 6 were not measurably different) and scored higher, on average, than 42 education systems. The 8 education systems with average mathematics scores above the U.S. average were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Northern Ireland, North Carolina, and Flemish Belgium.

International Benchmarks of Proficiency
As in PIRLS, TIMSS uses four international benchmarks (Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low) to describe the skills and knowledge of students at various levels of proficiency. The United States had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching each international benchmark than the international median of participating education systems. Thirteen percent of U.S. fourth-graders reached the Advanced international benchmark; seven education systems had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching the Advanced international benchmark.

Trends in Performance in Mathematics
The U.S. average score in mathematics at grade 4 rose 12 points between 2007 and 2011. The United States was one of 12 education systems that increased its average score between 2007 and 2011.

Performance in the Independently Participating States
Florida and North Carolina participated in TIMSS at grade 4 in order to receive their own state results. Florida's average score (545) in mathematics at grade 4 was higher than the average in 43 education systems and lower than in 6. It was not measurably different from the U.S. average. North Carolina's average score (554) was higher than the average in 47 education systems (including the United States) and lower than in 5.

U.S. Performance in Mathematics at Grade 8: Results from TIMSS

At grade 8, the U.S. average mathematics score (509) was higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500. The United States was among the top 24 education systems in mathematics (11 education systems had higher averages and 12 were not measurably different) and scored higher, on average, than 32 education systems. The 11 education systems with average grade 8 mathematics scores above the U.S. average were Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, the Russian Federation, North Carolina, Quebec-Canada, and Indiana.

International Benchmarks of Proficiency
The United States had higher percentages of eighth-graders reaching each international benchmark than the international median of participating education systems. Seven percent of U.S. eighth-graders reached the Advanced international benchmark; 11 education systems had higher percentages of eighth-graders reaching the Advanced international benchmark than the United States.

Trends in Performance in Mathematics
The U.S. average score at grade 8 in TIMSS mathematics in 2011 was not measurably different from in 2007.

Performance in the Independently Participating States
Among the U.S. states that participated in TIMSS at grade 8, the average mathematics scores of Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana were above both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average. Colorado, Connecticut, and Florida had average scores above the TIMSS scale average, but not measurably different from the U.S. national average. California’s average score was not measurably different from the TIMSS scale average, but was below the U.S. national average. Alabama’s average score was below both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average in mathematics.

U.S. Performance in Science at Grade 4: Results From TIMSS

At grade 4, the U.S. average science score (544) was higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500. The United States was among the top 10 education systems (6 education systems had higher averages and 3 were not measurably different) and scored higher, on average, than 47 education systems. The 6 education systems with average science scores above the U.S. average were Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan, the Russian Federation, and Chinese Taipei.

International Benchmarks of Proficiency
The United States had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching each international benchmark than the international median of participating education systems. Fifteen percent of U.S. fourth-graders reached the Advanced international benchmark; three education systems had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching the Advanced international benchmark.

Trends in Performance in Science
The U.S. average score in science at grade 4 in 2011 was not measurably different from in 2007.

Performance in the Independently Participating States
Florida's average score (545) in science at grade 4 was higher than the average in 45 education systems and lower than in 4. North Carolina’s average score (538) was higher than the average in 36 education systems and lower than in 6. Both Florida and North Carolina had scores that were not measurably different from the U.S. average.

U.S. Performance in Science at Grade 8: Results from TIMSS

At grade 8, the U.S. average science score (525) was higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500. The United States was among the top 23 education systems (12 education systems had higher averages and 10 were not measurably different) and scored higher, on average, than 33 education systems. The 12 education systems with average science scores above the U.S. average were Singapore, Massachusetts, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Japan, Minnesota, Finland, Alberta-Canada, Slovenia, the Russian Federation, Colorado, and Hong Kong-China.

International Benchmarks of Proficiency
The United States had higher percentages of eighth-graders reaching each international benchmark than the international median of participating education systems. Ten percent of U.S. eighth-graders reached the Advanced international benchmark; 12 education systems had higher percentages of eighth-graders reaching the Advanced international benchmark.

Trends in Performance in Science
The U.S. average score in science at grade 8 in 2011 was not measurably different from in 2007.

Performance in the Independently Participating States
Among the U.S. states that participated in TIMSS at grade 8, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado had average science scores above both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average. Indiana, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida had averages above the TIMSS scale average, but not measurably different from the U.S. national average. California’s average score was not measurably different from the TIMSS scale average, but was below the U.S. national average. Alabama’s average score was below both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average.

For More Information

This statement highlights some of the major findings from PIRLS 2011 and TIMSS 2011 from the U.S. perspective; the reports, available on the NCES website, provide many more details. Also, other findings are available in the IEA’s reports on PIRLS 2011 and TIMSS 2011. For more information on PIRLS and the U.S. PIRLS 2011 results, please visit the PIRLS website at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pirls. For more information on TIMSS and the U.S. TIMSS 2011 results, please visit the TIMSS website at http://nces.ed.gov/timss.

Commissioner Jack Buckley's Briefing Slides MS PowerPoint (10.8 MB)

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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
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