Dec. 16, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 8

TIMSS directors Ina V. S. Mullis and Michael O. Martin.

US an 'Underachiever' in Math, Science

Researchers: Reforms needed in curriculum, teacher preparation

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

An international study released by Boston College researchers this week reveals an achievement gap between US pupils and their Asian counterparts in math and science that observers say could presage a continued flow of skilled jobs in technology to better-prepared workforces in Singapore, Chinese Taipei and other Asian countries.

For the size and strength of its economy, the United States "is definitely an underachiever" in math and science education, said Ina V. S. Mullis, who with Michael O. Martin directs the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study that measures achievement by schoolchildren in the fourth- and eighth grades in nations across the world.

More than 360,000 students in 49 countries participated in the third and latest round of the study, TIMSS 2003, released this week, which showed Asian pupils dominating in math and science achievement while their US counterparts lagged in comparison [See related story].

The Lynch School of Education researchers say their latest findings present US policy-makers with a clarion call for education reform. If the trend continues, a global computer giant might make its headquarters in Vermont, but its hardware and software largely in Asia, Martin suggested.

The prescription for ailing US math and science achievement, said Mullis, is a stronger curriculum; better-prepared teachers; widespread enrollment in advanced-level courses; and rigorous assessment.

In math achievement, at the fourth-grade level, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Chinese Taipei and Flemish Belgium finished in the top five spots while the United States finished 12th. At the eighth-grade level, the United States dropped to 15th, with Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan taking the top five spots.

In science achievement, at the fourth-grade level, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Hong Kong and England finished one through five, with the United States just behind in sixth. At the eighth-grade level, the United States fell to ninth, with Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Hong Kong and Estonia in the top five places.

While American eighth graders made significant improvement in math and science in the eight years since the first TIMSS report, US education-reform advocates echoed concern over the achievement gap reflected in the TIMSS numbers.

"American employers are nervous when they hear news like this," said Kathleen Porter-Magee, associate director of research for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, DC. "The American workforce is only as good as the education of its workers."

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, and holder of the Brown Chair in Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, said:

"For the past several years, the TIMSS survey has been an important, reliable source of information about international student achievement. American students have consistently lagged behind other nations, especially in the middle school and high school years.

"The economy of the 21st century is one that requires ever higher levels of literacy and numeracy. We as a nation must take the TIMSS findings seriously and apply ourselves to raising achievement across the board for our students.

"This means a stronger, more coherent curriculum; a clearer focus on academics; and greater emphasis on student effort. In our democratic society, we require an educated citizenry and we must insist on equality of educational opportunity for all children."

The TIMSS research that every four years reverberates around the globe is done largely under the radar at Boston College.

Mullis and Martin oversee the project from their International Study Center offices in Manresa House at 188 Beacon St. on the outskirts of campus. The study center currently employs 22 staffers and between six and eight graduate students.

"We have a low profile in the community," said Martin. "But we've brought $35 million in research funds into BC in the past, and within the next three years, we will have brought in $50 million. We have a tremendous resource here."

TIMSS is a project of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), headquartered in Amsterdam, and is directed by Mullis and Martin at BC in collaboration with a worldwide network of organizations and representatives from participating countries.

TIMSS is designed to help countries all over the world improve student learning in mathematics and science. It collects educational achievement data at the fourth and eighth grades to provide information about trends in performance over time, together with extensive background information to address concerns about the quantity, quality and content of instruction.

Previous installments of the TIMSS study were released in 1996 and 2000.

Martin and Mullis came with TIMSS to BC in 1994 when Prof. Albert Beaton (LSOE) took the reins of the international study and invited them to assist in directing it. Martin had been a TIMSS representative in Ireland, and Mullis had worked on the US National Assessment of Educational Progress. Beaton retired from the Lynch School this past year.

"A gigantic, international effort to improve education in math and science is being managed out of Boston College," said Mullis. "A staggering amount of effort worldwide is based here."

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