International Study of 3rd, 4th graders

South Korea, Singapore Lead In Math, Science

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

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 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 survey, which tracked classroom achievement by third- and fourth-graders in 26 countries.

Study director Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE) speaks from the podium at the press conference. Seated at the table, from left, are Research Prof. Ina Mullis (SOE), International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement Chairman Tjeerd Plomp, and Research Assoc. Prof. Michael Martin (SOE). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The United States placed third in science at both third and fourth grades. In mathematics, the US ranked 12th at the fourth grade level, and 10th at the third grade level.

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 subjects at the fourth grade level.

The results released June 10 for 26 countries complement those released last November for 41 countries at the seventh and eighth grade levels.

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 peers.

"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.

But the study's director, Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE), questioned whether such factors could - or should - be transplanted to the United States.

"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 Beaton.

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

Several key findings, however, were noted by the authors of the study. Among them:

-Most countries that performed above the international average in mathematics and science at the fourth grade also did so in eighth grade.

-Pupils who have books and computers at home do better in school than those who don't, another echo from the earlier study.

-Differences between third and fourth grade girls and boys in math achievement were found to be small or essentially non-existent in most countries. In science, the differences between boys and girls were much less pervasive than those noted at the seventh and eighth grade levels.

A TIMSS report on math and science achievement by high school seniors is due next year.

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