Study Rates Singapore Best In Math, Science

World-wide report on 7th, 8th graders

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Boston College researchers have released preliminary results from the largest international study of student achievement ever undertaken, which named Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and the Czech Republic as the top-performing countries in mathematics and science at the 7th and 8th grade levels.

In addition, the study found that while there was little gender difference in mathematics, boys consistently outperformed girls in science, and it identified several home factors - including parents' level of education and access to study aids like dictionaries and computers - as strongly related to mathematics and science achievement.

Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE), the TIMSS director, is interviewed by Boston Globe science reporter David Chandler following the Nov. 20 press conference in the Shea Room. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The report, presented by the researchers at a Nov. 20 press conference in the Conte Forum Shea Room, was the first in a series of results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy has been the headquarters for TIMSS since the project began in 1993.

TIMSS administered achievement tests to about 500,000 students from five grade levels in 45 countries, including the United States, Canada, Latvia, Spain, Iran, Colombia and Thailand (results from the other grade levels have not been released yet). In addition, the study questioned students, teachers and principals on their backgrounds, attitudes, experiences and learning or teaching methods. The results offer valuable data for educational policy makers, said TIMSS International Study Director Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE), while shedding light on how curriculum, instruction and other factors influence student achievement.

"The TIMSS results provide a lens through which each participating country can examine its own educational system with an international perspective," Beaton said at the press conference. The information, he added, can be used to set national achievement goals, improve curricula and teaching practices, and "suggest ways of stimulating students' willingness to study and learn."

Appearing with Beaton were Tjeerd Plomp, chairman of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which sponsored the study, and SOE research professors Michael Martin and Ina Mullis, the TIMSS International deputy and co-deputy study directors, respectively. They outlined the purpose and methodology of the study and discussed the results obtained so far.

Plomp praised the "widespread global collaboration that made the study possible," pointing to the University's International Study Center which coordinated TIMSS activities in the participating countries.

"It is also a testimony to the nearly 50 countries who had the foresight to embark on this remarkable endeavor, each one committing the resources necessary to conduct TIMSS in their own country," he added.

Of 41 countries reporting results, Singapore compiled the highest average achievement scores in mathematics and science for both grades 7 and 8, according to the report. Korea, Japan and Hong Kong were the next highest performers in both grades for the mathematics achievement tests. In the science achievement tests, the Czech Republic scored the second-highest average for grade 8, with Japan, Korea and Bulgaria following; for grade 7, the order was Korea, the Czech Republic, Japan and Bulgaria.

The achievement test scores ranged between 200 and 800, out of a possible 1,000. The United States scored an average of 476 and 500 in the 7th and 8th grade mathematics tests, respectively, compared to 601 and 643 for Singapore. The US tied with England for 23rd place in the 7th grade results, and ranked 28th in the 8th grade. In the science tests, the US averaged scores of 508 and 534 for 7th and 8th grade, respectively, and Singapore averaged 545 and 607. These scores placed American 7th graders 13th and 8th graders 17th among their peers from the participating countries.

Among other key findings, TIMSS reported that eighth graders in about half the countries said they did an average of two to three hours of homework each day. Students typically studied mathematics for roughly an hour a day, somewhat less for science.

Eighth graders in most countries also reported spending as much out-of-school time each day involved in non-academic pursuits as in academic activities. They watched one or two hours of television a day, according to the results, spent nearly two hours playing sports and several hours playing or talking with friends.

The researchers noted that home factors were strongly related to mathematics and science achievement. Positive relationships were found between achievement and the presence of study aids in the home, including a dictionary, computer and desk for the student's own use. The number of books in the home and level of parents' education also were positive indicators of student performance, they said.

Despite large differences among countries in students' mathematics and science performance, the researchers said, TIMSS findings suggest diverse routes to educational success. Among some top-performing countries, students were grouped in large classes, spent little time on homework and were taught by relatively inexperienced teachers, yet still exhibited high levels of achievement.

"In contrast to the strong relationship observed between home factors and student achievement in every country," Mullis said, "it seems there is a complex interplay among instructional factors that influence high achievement."

Another unique aspect of the report, TIMSS representatives said, is its focus on students' attitudes toward mathematics and science. In all but four countries, for example, the majority of students agreed or strongly agreed they did well in mathematics, a perception that did not always coincide with comparisons in achievement across countries. Yet in three of the highest performing countries - Hong Kong, Japan and Korea - more than half of the students felt they did not do well in mathematics. Within nearly all countries, however, students reporting higher self-perceptions of their performance also tended to have higher average achievement.

A majority of 8th graders in nearly every country indicated they liked science to some degree, although in certain cases this varied according to gender. Boys reported liking science more than girls in several countries where it is taught as a single subject. Where the major scientific disciplines are taught separately, boys expressed a liking for physical science in particular more than girls.

In general, students said the strongest motivator for doing well in science or math was to enable them to gain acceptance into a secondary school or university.

Project coordinators made a great effort to ensure each country tested an adequate representation of students from different socioeconomic and geographical settings, the researchers said. Not all countries satisfied TIMSS guidelines for sample participation rates, grade selection and sampling procedures, and this was either indicated in the main body of the report where necessary or, in some cases, the results were given separately. The project's procedures and methods, and the test results, are described more fully in two companion volumes also released last week. The entire report is available on the TIMSS World Wide Web site [http://wwwcsteep.bc.edu/timss].

TIMSS will release other reports during the coming year on the achievement results for primary and high school students. In addition, researchers plan to delve deeper into the 7th and 8th grade data and draw more conclusions, a process which likely will take years.

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