Study Finds U.S. High School Seniors Lag Behind Global Peers in Math and Science

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A major study conducted by Boston College researchers shows Europeans are the world's best mathematics and physics students at the high school level, and that their American counterparts perform well below the international average in both subjects.

These were among the latest findings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which were released at a Feb. 24 press conference at Conte Forum. TIMSS is the largest international study of student achievement ever undertaken, with more than 500,000 students in 45 countries tested at five grade levels. The newest set of results is taken from surveys of students in their final year of secondary school which measured mathematics and science literacy, as well as skill levels in physics and advanced mathematics.

Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE), right, is interviewed by National Public Radio's Tovia Smith at the Feb. 24 press conference. Looking on are TIMSS researchers Michael O. Martin and Ina V.S. Mullis. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

According to the report, students in the Netherlands and Sweden fared best in overall mathematics and science literacy; French students performed highest in advanced mathematics; and those in Norway and Sweden led in physics. American high school seniors, meanwhile, showed a sharp drop-off in math and science skills after elementary school.

But researchers cautioned against jumping to hasty conclusions based on the TIMSS data.

"We did not find simple relationships between student performance and school variables such as the amount of homework or the amount of time spent in mathematics and physics classes," said Prof. Albert Beaton (SOE), director of the study. "The TIMSS data underscore the important point that there are no simple answers to complex questions, such as, 'How can schools improve educational achievement?'"

The study was sponsored by the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an independent international cooperative of research centers. The TIMSS International Study Center, located at Boston College, managed the study on the international level.

Researchers had previously examined math and science achievement by middle and elementary schoolers across the world, releasing results in November 1996 for 41 countries at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, which rated Singapore as highest-performing; and in June 1997 for 26 countries at the third- and fourth-grade levels, which were led by Singapore and South Korea.

In the newly released survey, the United States received a score of 471 in mathematics and science literacy, well below the international average of 500. Scoring below the United States were Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa. Finishing atop the rankings were the Netherlands (559) and Sweden (555). Also performing above average were Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand and Austria.

In advanced mathematics, the United States' score of 442 was below the international average of 501. Only Austria (436) scored lower. France, with a score of 557, finished atop the rankings in this category. Others performing above average were the Russian Federation, Switzerland, Denmark, Cyprus and Lithuania.

In physics, the United States was last with a score of 423, well below the international average of 501. Norway led the rankings with a score of 581. Others performing above average were Sweden, the Russian Federation and Denmark.

A gender gap also was evident in the findings, with boys outperforming girls in mathematics and science literacy in all but one of the 21 countries tested. Similarly, boys outperformed girls in physics in all but one of the 16 countries tested, and in 11 out of 16 countries which tested advanced mathematics.

The TIMSS research has indicated a downward trend in the math and science skills of American pupils in the years following the fourth grade. In mathematics, US students perform above the international average at the fourth grade, but well below it at the eighth grade. In science, American pupils are above the international average at the fourth grade, but just average at the eighth grade.

Researchers said US middle school and high school curricula may be partly to blame for the drop-off since they do not require many math and science courses. By contrast, said IEA Chairman Tjeerd Plomp, "In Europe, there is not a student who can escape mathematics."

European students also must prepare for stiff national exams at the end of their senior year, while their American counterparts tend to be toning down the rigor of their classes, researchers added.

In other findings, calculator use was found to be characteristic of high performance. "On all three tests, students who reported using calculators daily performed well above those who rarely or never used them," said TIMSS International Deputy Study Director Michael Martin.

Researchers emphasized that the study is meant to provide a lens through which each participating country can examine its own educational system with an international perspective.

"Providing evidence that the students in 'my' country are doing better or worse than a competitor in the 'global market' does little to explain how such differences arise," said Plomp. "Such differences can have many possible causes, including differences in the content of the curriculum, tracking or streaming practices, classroom time on task, amount of homework, class size, and so forth.

"To provide policy-makers with a better understanding of the complex interplay among such factors and the most promising avenues to effective teaching and learning, we need further in-depth analyses of the extremely rich TIMSS data base," Plomp said.

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