Dec. 16, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 8

Math, Science Study Finds Asian Nations Still Dominant

New TIMSS report sees 'significant' progress for US eighth graders

Boston College researchers released an international study Tuesday that shows students from Asian nations remain the top performers in mathematics and science at the fourth and eighth grade levels, while American eighth graders have made significant improvement in both areas.

Singapore had the highest average achievement in math and science for fourth and eighth grade, and students from the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong SAR also performed very well across the two subject areas, according to the most recent major reports of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The United States ranked 15th in eighth grade mathematics achievement, 12th in fourth grade; in science, the US was ninth in the eighth grade level, sixth in fourth grade.

TIMSS 2003, the third in the continuing cycle of international assessments conducted every four years, is the first international assessment to monitor trends in achievement over time. More than 360,000 students in 49 countries participated in TIMSS 2003. The new report contains math and science results for 46 countries and four benchmarking participants at the eighth grade and for 25 countries and three benchmarking participants at the fourth grade.

Trend data are provided at the eighth and fourth grades for those countries that also participated in the 1995 and 1999 studies. Results from the latter study found that Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan had the highest average achievement in eighth-grade mathematics. Chinese Taipei and Singapore had the highest average performance in science, closely followed by Hungary, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.

Besides identifying changes in math and science achievements, TIMSS 2003 provides a wealth of information on gender performance, home environment, curriculum and instructional approaches, and teacher preparation in mathematics and science.

"TIMSS 2003 data provide invaluable international benchmarks that can be used to help define world-class performance in mathematics and science at the middle or lower-secondary school level," according to TIMSS International Study Directors Michael O. Martin and Ina V.S. Mullis, who are professors in the Lynch School of Education. [See related story.] "Beyond comparisons in mathematics and science test scores, however, the reports provide a wealth of information on educational policies and practices around the world."

"TIMSS is truly a rich resource. The reports provide considerable grist for the discussion of what we want schools to accomplish and how we can improve the teaching and learning of math and science."

Along with Singapore, the top-performing country in mathematics at both the eighth and fourth grades, TIMSS researchers found eighth-graders in the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong SAR and Chinese Taipei also had significantly higher average achievement than other participating countries. At the fourth grade level, Hong Kong SAR, Japan and Chinese Taipei outperformed the rest of the countries.

Singapore and Chinese Taipei were the top-performing countries in eighth grade science, followed by the Republic of Korea and Hong Kong SAR. Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Hong Kong SAR and England were the top countries in fourth grade science.

TIMSS researchers also found that the United States was among those countries showing significant improvement in eighth grade math and science achievement from 1995 to 2003.

The US also was one of the few countries in the study where boys demonstrated higher achievement in fourth and eighth grade math. American boys also outperformed girls in fourth grade science.

Most countries had mathematics and science curricula defined at the national level, except Australia and the United States, and often supported by ministry directives, instructional guides, school inspections and recommended textbooks.

Across the content areas assessed, teachers were well experienced in teaching the subject matter, with many holding university degrees, and reported readiness to teach nearly all the major topics tested by TIMSS at the eighth grade.

At both grade levels, average mathematics and science achievement was higher for students in schools with few students from economically disadvantaged homes than for students attending schools with more than half their students from disadvantaged homes.

TIMSS researchers also said there was a positive relationship between school safety and achievement.

In mathematics, the highest performing countries at the eighth grade level - Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong SAR and Chinese Taipei - had about one-third of their students or more reaching the advanced benchmark identified by TIMSS, followed by Japan with 24 percent. All other countries had 11 percent or less of their students reaching the advanced benchmark.

Singapore had 38 percent of its fourth grade students reaching the advanced benchmark followed by 21 to 22 percent of the students in Hong Kong SAR and Japan.

In science, the highest performing countries at eighth grade - Singapore and Chinese Taipei - had one-third to one-fourth of their students reaching the advanced benchmark. Next came the Republic of Korea, followed by England, Japan, Hungary, Hong Kong SAR, Estonia, and the United States. At the fourth grade, Singapore had 25 percent of its students reaching the advanced benchmark, followed by England, Chinese Taipei, the United States, Japan, the Russian Federation and Hungary.

Across subject area and grade level, higher levels of parents' education were associated with higher student achievement in almost all countries. Also, students expecting to finish university had substantially greater average mathematics and science achievement.

At both the eighth and fourth grades, in both math and science, students from homes where the language of the test was always or almost always spoken had higher average achievement than those who spoke it less frequently. There also was a clear relationship between the number of books at home and achievement.

In both disciplines, achievement was positively related to computer use, particularly at eighth grade.

The full TIMSS 2003 reports are available via the World Wide Web at

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