U.S. Students Trounced in Int’l Science Match

Published February 1, 2001

The continuing lackluster performance of U.S. eighth-graders in an international math and science study raises concerns not only about the effectiveness of standards-based school reforms, but also about why children in American public schools fall further behind in their learning as they accumulate more time in school.

By contrast to the mediocre performance of U.S. students in general, students from U.S. private schools performed impressively in the same study.

U.S. education officials thought they saw a ray of hope in the original Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) scores in 1995. Although test scores of U.S. eighth-graders were below average and scores for U.S. twelfth-graders were among the lowest in the world, U.S. fourth-graders scored markedly above average in science and held their own in math.

Thinking this meant standards-based reforms were kicking in and would be sustained, U.S. officials asked for a TIMSS-Repeat in 1999 to compare scores just for eighth-graders. Thirty-eight nations participated in the repeat study, which officials hoped would prove 1995’s fourth-graders continued to excel.

That ray of hope was dimmed when the scores from the study were released late in 2000. Today’s U.S. eighth-graders do far worse on science than did the fourth-graders of four years ago, plunging from third place among participating nations to 19th. In math, scores have slipped from 12th place for fourth-graders in 1995 to 18th place for eighth-graders four years later.

“This is a disturbing trend,” said House Education Chairman Bill Goodling, “indicating that we are not yet adequately focused on results in the classroom. These test results are indicative that for too many years, we placed a priority on process.”

The scores raise a new question for would-be school reformers: Why is it that the longer children stay in American public schools, the further they fall behind acceptable standards of learning?

Another question would be: What has Canada been doing to improve instruction in math and science? Only Canada and Latvia showed increases in performance in most of the math content areas, and only Canada among all the participating nations made gains in all four areas of science content.

Overall, the results for the U.S. show no real change from the mediocre-to-poor state of U.S. math and science achievement exposed in the original TIMSS. American eighth-graders in 1999 were out-ranked by their peers in 17 nations in science and 18 in math. Among the English-speaking nations, Canada and Australia outranked the U.S. in both science and math.

With average performance set at 500, math scores ranged from 604 in Singapore to 275 in South Africa, while science scores varied from a high of 569 in Taiwan to 243 in South Africa. U.S. average scores were 502 in math and 515 in science.

Riley, Business Leaders Respond

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley sought to put the best face possible on the dismal results, pointing out that “U.S. eighth-grade students are above the international average in mathematics and science.” But a list of results by nation shows the U.S. badly lagging some of its economic competitors, while outscoring such nations as Moldova, Tunisia, and Morocco–hardly world powers.

Riley also commented that “American students continue to learn, but their peers in some other nations have been learning at a faster rate”–a rationale that would sound strange if used by a losing football coach.

It is also important to note that the 38 nations participating in 1999 were not identical to the 41 that took part in 1995. Several European countries–Austria, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland–did not participate in the latest round, while many developing countries joined the study. So being “average” in 1999 may have been easier to accomplish than in 1995. When compared only to those countries that took both the 1995 and 1999 exams, U.S. scores drop below average.

Business leaders viewed the TIMSS-Repeat scores much more critically than Riley.

“The rest of the world will not stand still while we work to implement these reforms,” declared Edward B. Rust Jr., chief executive officer of State Farm Insurance and a board member of Achieve Inc., a business group pushing for its version of school reform.

Robert Schwarz, Achieve president, said part of the problem is that many nations expect their children to learn fundamentals such as algebra and geometry long before the U.S. does. “We shouldn’t expect American students to do well on math that we don’t teach them,” he said.

Private School Students Perform Well

Children in American private schools performed impressively on TIMSS-R, providing further evidence that if families were free to choose privately run schools, U.S. achievement could rise significantly. Had the private schools been the norm, the U.S. position in the international comparisons would have soared from 18th to sixth in science, and from 19th to 12th in math.

To put it another way, while U.S. public school students scored 498 in math, private school students scored 526, which matched the score for the 12th-ranked Russian Federation. In science, U.S. public school children scored just 510, while private school students scored 548, just behind the Republic of Korea, which ranked 5th in the world.

Technology, Homework, and Teachers

In addition to measuring student performance, TIMSS-Repeat asked students and teachers questions about classroom practices that yielded some revealing information.

For instance, U.S. eighth-grade students were far more likely than their peers to use calculators in their math lessons. In 1999, 42 percent of the Americans “almost always” used calculators, compared with the international average of just 19 percent. In addition, 80 percent of U.S. eighth-graders said they had a computer in their home, compared with an international average of just 45 percent.

At the same time, U.S. pupils reported spending less time on math and science homework than their international peers. The Americans spent about three-fourths of an hour on such work, while the international average was one full hour.

More calculators/less homework: Could this combination have something to do with disappointing performance?

Another possibly significant TIMSS-R finding had to do with the academic background of teachers. American eighth-graders were more likely than students in other nations to be taught by teachers who majored in professional education; as likely as their international peers to be taught by teachers who majored in mathematics education; but less likely than their peers to be taught math by teachers who majored in mathematics.

The same held true for science: American students were less likely to be taught science by teachers with degrees in science, and more likely to be taught by teacher with education degrees.

Despite their more limited academic background in math, U.S. teachers ranked second among the 38 nations in teachers reporting they felt “very well prepared to teach mathematics,” with a 90 percent confidence level that was exceeded only by Macedonia’s 92 percent. Given the mediocre math scores of U.S. students, one is reminded of a study a few years ago that showed U.S. students leading the world in self-esteem, though lagging far behind in actual achievement.

Some Positive Results

The TIMSS-R study reported some positive results. U.S. black children increased their math achievement from 1995 to 1999. And despite all the talk of a math deficit for females, there was no evidence of a difference between eighth-grade girls and boys in math in 1999. Boys did do better than girls in science, however. Overall, there was little change for white and Hispanic performance in math and science, though white students continued to score higher in both subjects than black or Hispanic students.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

Copies of the TIMSS-R report, Pursuing Excellence: Comparisons of International Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement from a U.S. Perspective, 1995 and 1999, are available on the National Center for Education Statistics Web site, http://nces.ed.gov/timss.

Or use PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research service, to request the documents in Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format. Point your browser to http://www.heartland.org and click on PolicyBot. Search for the document numbers listed above.