New Report Provides International Comparisons in 8th-grade Science & Math A new report finds that, compared to their peers around the world, US eighth-grade students score above average in science generally but only at the international average in physics, and are less likely than their international peers to have science teachers with a major or degree in physics. In commenting on the report, Education Secretary Richard Riley said, "It's apparent that we need to make a major investment in upgrading teacher skills in math, science and other subjects."
Educators, policymakers, proponents and critics alike of the nation's K-12 education system have relied on information from a series of international comparisons at various grade levels. Four years ago, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provided results of a 1995 comparison of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders around the globe. On December 5, the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics released preliminary results of the TIMSS-Repeat (TIMSS-R) study, conducted in 1999 on eighth-graders. Some highlights of the newly-released TIMSS-R report, "Pursuing Excellence," follow:
According to the report, US eighth-graders performed slightly above the international average of 38 nations in both science and math. In the 1995 study, US eighth-graders had tested above the international average in science but below the average in math, compared to students in 41 participating countries. Direct comparisons of international standing cannot be made between the two years because the list of participating countries is not identical. In fact, the data shows no absolute improvement in performance of US eighth-graders between 1995 and 1999, in either science or math.
The TIMSS-R data shows that in science, US eighth-graders outperformed their peers in 18 nations. They performed similarly to their peers in 5 nations, and they scored lower in science than students in 14 nations. In math, the TIMSS-R results show that US eighth-graders performed better than their peers in 17 nations and performed similarly to students in 6 nations. Their scores were surpassed by those of students in 14 nations.
Twenty-six nations participated in both the 1995 and 1999 studies. Several western European nations that participated in the 1995 assessment, including France and Germany, did not join in the 1999 repeat, while some former Soviet countries were included for the first time in 1999.
The TIMSS-R data also suggests that US eighth-graders performed worse in science and math in 1999 than US fourth-graders did in 1995, when compared to a group of 17 nations that participated in the same two assessments. According to acting commissioner of education statistics Gary Phillips, "This finding validates the results of the previous 1995 study that after the fourth grade, students in the United States fall behind their international peers as they pass through the school system."
While black US eighth-graders improved their math scores over the black eighth-graders of four years ago, they did not improve their science scores. Neither white nor Hispanic US eighth- graders showed improvement in either subject over comparable US eighth-graders in the 1995 study.
The US was one of 16 countries in which boys outperformed girls in eighth-grade science, and was one of 34 countries showing no gender gap in eighth-grade math.
In science, US eighth-graders performed higher than the international average in five of six content areas tested: Earth science, chemistry, life science, environmental and resource issues, and scientific inquiry and the nature of science. The US students' performance equaled the international average in the physics content area.
The report points out some differences in curriculum, teacher preparation, and teaching practices between the US and other countries, but warns that analysis of the data is still preliminary and cautions against assuming unwarranted correlations. US eighth-graders are less likely to be taught math or science by a teacher with a major or main area of specialty in math or physics, respectively, but are as likely as their international peers to be taught science by a teacher with a major or degree in biology, chemistry, or science education. US students are asked to explain the reasoning behind their science lessons, and to conduct experiments or practical investigations, more often than the international average. The US eighth-graders are more likely to begin doing their math or science homework during class, and to work independently on worksheets or texts in lessons, than the international average. They also spend less time than their international peers doing math or science homework or studying outside of school.
The study was designed to reflect the curriculum from many nations, and does not necessarily match exactly what US students are taught in eighth-grade math and science. Significant effort went into ensuring comparability across nations. The report runs approximately 138 pages with appendices, and can be accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/timss.
This report is likely to inspire hearings and legislation during the 107th Congress. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) is expected to reintroduce his three bills to improve science education early in the session, and a new bill based on recommendations of the Glenn Commission, introduced by Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Connie Morella (R-MD), will also probably be reintroduced early next year.
Audrey T. Leath