Study Finds Singaporean, South Korean Kids Best in Math and Science

(6-18-97) -- American third- and fourth-graders perform well above the international average in science, but lag far behind Asian counterparts in math skills, according to a study released June 10 by researchers at Boston College.

Singapore and South Korea are the top-performing countries in mathematics in the third and fourth grades, according to findings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

In science, South Korea ranked number one at both grade levels in the TIMSS survey, which tracked classroom achievement by third- and fourth-graders in 26 countries.

The United States placed third in science in both third and fourth grades. In mathematics, the US ranked 12th at the fourth-grade level, and 10th at the third-grade level.

Other high-performing countries in mathematics included Japan, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Austria. Japan, Austria and Australia were among the top countries in science.

The worst performance was by Iran, which finished last by a wide margin in third-grade math and science, and next to last - above Kuwait - in both categories at the fourth-grade level.

The results released Tuesday for 26 countries complement those released last November for 41 countries at the seventh and eighth grades. Singapore rated best in both categories then; the US ranked above average in science (13th at the seventh grade level and 17th at the eighth) and below average in math (23rd in the seventh grade and 28th in the eighth grade).

TIMSS is the largest international study of student achievement ever undertaken, encompassing more than 40 countries and a half-million students at five different grade levels. The collaborative research project is administered by the TIMSS International Study Center at Boston College, under the sponsorship of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

President Clinton cited the latest TIMSS study in a White House Rose Garden press conference on June 10 at which he renewed a call for high national education standards. Clinton said the study results show American pupils are making progress and "can be the best in the world."

But the lagging performance of American third- and fourth-graders in mathematics is cause for concern, said the study's co-deputy director, Research Prof. Ina V.S. Mullis (SOE).

Mullis cited a sample test question on fractions, which was answered correctly by 71 percent of Japanese fourth graders, but by only 32 percent of their American counterparts.

"This, along with other information we've collected with TIMSS, seems to suggest that our curriculum in mathematics trails behind that of other countries," Mullis said.

"Once you get behind, the tendency is to get further and further behind, so by the eighth grade, a larger difference is reflected in our relative standings."

The researchers said the high performance of pupils in South Korea, Singagore, Japan, and other Asian countries is influenced by cultural factors, including social discipline and expectations of strong school performance.

While public officials have debated longer class days and other proposals to improve performance in US classrooms, TIMSS researchers said their latest results offered no ready formulas to high achievement in math or science.

"As in the previous TIMSS reports, we did not find simple relationships between student performance and school variables such as the amount of homework, length of the school day or year, or the amount of time spent in mathematics and science classes," said the study's director, Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE).

"Disentangling and understanding the relationships of these variables to student performance will require further research," Beaton said.

One common factor found amoung high achievers in both studies was the presence of a computer and reference books in the home for the student's use.

Researchers and educators from more than 50 research organizations around the world have worked together for more than seven years on this enormous comparative achievement study. Next to come is a TIMSS report on math and science achievement by high-school seniors, scheduled to be released next year.

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