U.S. Students Show Slight Improvement in Math, Science Achievement

Published March 1, 2005

According to the annual Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), designed and coordinated by Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, U.S. elementary school students made slight gains in math and science improvement over the previous year.

In December 2004, the TIMSS released results from its 2003 assessments. Of the 46 countries that participated in the eighth-grade tests, U.S. students ranked ninth in science achievement and 15th in mathematics achievement. On the fourth-grade tests, in which 25 countries took part, U.S. students ranked sixth in science and 12th in math.

Above Average

In math, U.S. fourth-graders scored an average of 518 on TIMSS, higher than the international average of 495. Asian countries dominated the mathematics results for that age group, with Singapore taking the top score at 594, followed by Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Latvia.

Eighth-graders in the United States also finished above average in math, scoring 504, above the international average of 466, making it 15th of 45 nations in that category. Singapore, with an average score of 605, again ranked highest at that grade level, followed by South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

In science, U.S. fourth-graders outperformed an even greater percentage of their global peers, scoring 536, above the average of 489. That placed the United States sixth of 25 countries participating in that section of the test, and fourth of 11 industrialized nations.

Average Mathematics

U.S. eighth-grade students scored 527 in the science test, also better than the international average of 473, ranking them ninth of 45 nations.

Singapore’s students were the top performers on all four tests, scoring between 565 and 605 on each.

Some Scores Improved Slightly

U.S. eighth-graders made small gains over students in previous years. U.S. eighth-graders scored 12 points higher on the 2003 TIMSS science test than in 1999 and 15 points higher than in 1995. On the math test, eighth-graders scored 2 points higher than in 1999 and 12 points better than in 1995.

At the fourth-grade level, however, U.S. students showed no improvement over 1995’s math score of 518 and a six-point drop from that year’s science score of 542.

Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore outperformed the U.S. fourth-graders in both science and math. In addition, those countries had a higher percentage of students who scored at the most advanced level in math. For example, 44 percent of eighth-graders in Singapore scored at the most advanced level in math (625 or higher), as did 38 percent in Taiwan. Only 7 percent of U.S. students scored that well.

According to Education Week‘s analysis, the TIMSS results reflect efforts by states and schools to improve the basic mathematical skills of low-performing and minority students. The National Center for Education Statistics found black fourth-graders showed a 15-point gain on the math test from 1995 to 2003, while white students’ scores climbed only one point and scores for Hispanic students fell one point.

PISA Results Disappointing

U.S. students fared better in the TIMSS survey than in another international education report, released in early December 2004 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In that survey, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. 15-year-olds fell below the international average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving.

The PISA study included only industrialized countries, whereas the TIMSS study included developing nations.

The TIMSS has been monitoring international student achievement every four years since 1995. The TIMSS assessment seeks to measure students’ understanding of specific content they have learned in science and mathematics classes. By contrast, the PISA tests 15-year-olds’ abilities at applying math skills to real-world problems.

In the United States the TIMSS assessed roughly 9,000 eighth-graders using two 200-question tests, each lasting 90 minutes. Nearly 10,000 fourth-graders took two 150-question tests, each one 72 minutes long. Each nation’s ultimate score represents an average of all students in that country.

Still Far Behind Peers

While the United States fared better on the TIMSS than on the PISA, U.S. students still lag far behind their counterparts in several other industrialized countries.

In the U.S. there is a greater variation in curriculum at the state and local level, and students come from diverse racial and economic backgrounds. Education reform groups such as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and The Teaching Commission have argued the large achievement gap between the United States and other Asian nations offers further evidence of the need to reform math and science education and offer teachers differential pay to attract high-quality math and science educators.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is education director of the Reason Foundation.

For more information …

see the National Center for Education Statistics’ Web site on the 2003 results of the TIMSS, http://nces.ed.gov/timss/Results03.asp.