American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Report on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (3-13-98)

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is, according to the US Department of Education, "the largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous internationa l comparison of education ever undertaken." In the 1995 school year, TIMSS tested 500,000 students from 41 nations at five different grade levels on math and science topics. The study included tests, questionnaires, curriculum analyses, videotaped classro om observations, and policy issue case studies. Representative random samples of students and teachers were used to collect data for the study. Coordination of the study was funded by the National Center for Education Sta tistics (NCES), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Canadian government. Each participating country was required to follow data collection guidelines and pay the costs of gathering the data.

The mathematics portion of TIMSS analyzes student achievement in six content areas: whole numbers; fractions and proportionality; data representation, analysis and probability; geometry and patterns; relations; and functions. The science portion of the test is divided into five areas: Earth science, life science, physics, chemistry, and environmental issues and the nature of science. The Earth science portion of the test included questions on Earth features, Earth processes, and the Earth's place in th e universe. The Earth features questions were on composition, landforms, water bodies, atmosphere, ice forms and rocks and soil. Earth processes covered weather and climate, physical cycles, tectonics, and Earth history. The Earth's place in the universe covered topics like the Earth's relation to the sun and moon, the planets, larger features such as galaxies, and the evolution of the universe.

The results for the fourth grade, eighth grade, and twelfth grade studies have been released.

One conclusion that stands out from the TIMSS study is that the US science curriculum suffers from the "mile wide and inch deep" phenomenon. US science courses include far more topics than other countries, which results in a lack of depth in learning b y the US students. Not only are there too many topics, the topics are not new but are simply carried on from year to year. William H. Schmidt, Executive Director of the US National Center for TIMSS, says that other countries focus on fewer topics for a lo nger period of time and then introduce new topics into the curriculum. According to Schmidt, in the US, 70 percent of eighth-grade students receive science teaching as a series of unrelated facts that are not part of a cohesive framework. The ubiquitous m ultiple choice tests only add to the problem by testing on a list of facts rather than going into depth on any topic.

For more details on the results of TIMSS, visit the TIMSS website, which includes the fourth and eighth grade study reports along with information about various resources that can be used to interpret and com pare TIMSS results. Information on the results of the twelfth grade study is available on a different section of the TIMSS site. You can also read about the eighth grade study in the July 1997 issue of Geotimes. Finally, a new TIMSS website contains many resources for learning about and discussing TIMSS, including Attaining Excellence: A TIMSS Resource Kit, developed by the U.S. Department of Education. Additional materials and contact information will help educators, teacher educators, parents, and students understand and work with TIMSS data.


Fourth Grade Results
On June 10, 1997, the National Center for Educational Statistics announced the results of the
fourth-grade portion of the TIMSS project. In overall mathematics, US fourth graders performed above the average of 26 TI MSS countries that participated in this section of the study. Seven countries ranked higher than the US. The US fourth grade students scored above average in all content areas of mathematics except measurement, estimation and number sense.

US fourth graders also performed above the international average in overall science with only one country, Korea, outscoring US students. The US fourth-grade students were outperformed by only one or two other countries in the content areas of earth sc ience, life science, and environmental issues and the nature of science. Five other countries outperformed the US in the area of physical science, a topic that is not usually covered in the fourth-grade curriculum.

The report showed that a gender gap does exist in the fourth grade results. Boys scored significantly higher than girls in earth and physical sciences. Data from ten other countries also showed a gender gap in science. However, there was no significant gender gap in the fourth-grade US mathematics scores.

For more information on the fourth-grade results, visit the Department of Education website and read "Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Fourth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in I nternational Context."

Eighth Grade Results
The results for
eighth grade portion of TIMSS were released on November 20, 1996. In mathematics, US eighth graders scored below the international average of all 41 TIMSS nations in the study. The US scores were con sistent with the international average in three content areas: algebra, fractions, and data representation, analysis and probability. The US eighth graders scored below average in three other areas: geometry, measurement and proportionality.

In overall science US eighth graders scored above the international average. The US students performed above average in earth science, life science and environmental issues, while scores in chemistry and physics were approximately average. The lower sc ores in this area may be attributed to the fact that, in the US, chemistry and physics are usually taught only as components of a general eighth-grade science course and not as individual classes. Singapore was the only country with significantly higher s cores than the US in the environmental issues area. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) speculates that US students performed well on environmental issues because they are social issues that are recognized i n and out of the classroom. According to NSTA, students can apply scientific concepts more easily to "real-world" topics. In earth science, the international average for items answered correctly was 55 percent; the US eighth graders score was 58 percent.

The US, along with 11 other countries had no significant gender gap in their science and mathematics results. The other countries with this result were Singapore, the Russian Federation, Thailand, Australia, Ireland, Romania, Flemish Belgium, Cyprus, C olumbia, and South Africa.

The NCES cautions that no single factor can be listed as the root of US scores in TIMSS, but NCES has made some preliminary observations concerning eighth-grade performance in the study. Primarily, US eighth-grade mathematics course content is not as c hallenging and topic coverage is not as focused as in other countries. While most US mathematics teachers say they are familiar with recommendations for classroom reform, only a few teachers actually apply the recommendations in their classrooms. Finally, US teachers do not receive or take advantage of as many professional development opportunities as teachers in Germany or Japan. Although the Education Department's Eisenhower Professional Development Program attempts to alleviate this problem, the progra m is not large enough to solve it. Moreover, many schools have sought and received waivers to divert the federal funds to other purposes. For more information on the Eisenhower program, visit AGI's legislative update on the program. NSTA speculates that the fourth graders performed better in science because the curriculum at that level tends to be more focused than at the eighth-grade level.

For more information on the eighth-grade results, visit the Department of Education website and read "Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in Internatio nal Context."

Twelfth Grade
Although fourth and eighth grade students in the United States performed well in
TIMSS, U.S. twelfth graders finished near the bottom of the twenty four nations who participated in the test. The results of the study, released February 24, 1998, showed that U.S. students outperformed only three countries -- Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa. The Netherlands and Sweden had the highest scores.

In the US, up to one-third of students do not take four years of math and science. Students in countries with higher scores typically took math and science throughout high school, regardless of their future plans. But US high school seniors who were ta king the toughest math and science courses still performed poorly compared to similar students in most other countries.

The US and most other countries found a gender difference in performance. "In most countries, there was a substantial gender difference favoring males on all three tests," said TIMSS International Study Director Albert Beaton, a professor in Boston Col leges School of Education. According to the report, males outperformed females in all but one of the 21 countries testing in mathematics and science literacy. Similarly, males outperformed females in physics in all but one of the 16 countries testing in p hysics, and in 11 out of 16 countries testing in advanced mathematics.

Government officials and teachers expressed their disappointment with the results, and offered several explanations. President Clinton described the tests as "a wake-up call on education.'' Republicans blamed the disappointing results on a "hungry bure aucracy in Washington'' that gobbles up education funds. William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor and national research coordinator for TIMSS, said that students in other countries begin learning elements of algebra, geometry, physics and ch emistry in middle school while science and math teaching in this country often is repetitive and unchallenging.

Secretary of Education Richard Riley, commented, "These results are entirely unacceptable, and absolutely confirm our need to raise our standards of achievement, testing, and teaching, especially in our middle and high schools." According to the Triang le Coalition, Riley blamed easy graduation requirements (about half of college bound seniors have not taken four years of science) along with a severe lack of teachers trained in the subjects they teach (about half of physics teachers lack a major or mino r in that subject) Riley called for 6 steps to help improve performance:

Sources: American Institute of Physics; Department of Education; Jakwerth, Bianchi, McKnight and Schmidt in Geotimes; Kristina Zach in AWIS Magazine; National Science Teachers Association; National Center for Education Statistics; Triangle Coalition ; White House press releases; American Chemical Society

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Stephanie Barrett, AGI Government Affairs Intern and Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs
Posted July 17, 1997; Last Updated March 13, 1998

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