Study Finds Asian Countries Are Best in Math, Science

Study Finds Asian Countries Are Best in Math, Science

Newest TIMSS data indicates little progress for US 8th graders

By Patricia Delaney
Director of Media Relations
and Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Eighth-grade students in Asian nations outperformed their peers worldwide in mathematics and science achievement, according to a 38-country study released last week by a research team based at the Lynch School of Education.

The 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.

Researchers also found that boys tend to have a more positive self-concept than girls in mathematics and science, and that, from grade 4 to 8, the average instructional time for mathematics begins to decrease but increases for science.

These results were part of the findings from the TIMSS 1999 study, presented at a Dec. 5 press conference in the Shea Room of Conte Forum by representatives from the International Study Center at Boston College and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

The report builds on the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the largest and most comprehensive international survey of achievement ever undertaken in these subjects. TIMSS 1999 assessed the mathematics and science performance of more than 180,000 eighth-grade students in over 6,000 schools in 38 countries in 34 languages.

Eighth-graders in the United States finished 19th in mathematics achievement, 18th in science, according to TIMSS 1999. These results represented no significant change from the 1995 study.

The TIMSS 1999 directors said the study is intended to offer valuable data for educational policy makers while shedding light on how curriculum, instruction and other factors - ranging from teacher confidence to classroom environment - influence student achievement.

"TIMSS 1999 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," said International Study Center Co-director Ina V.S. Mullis. "Beyond comparisons in mathematics and science test scores, however, the reports provide rich information on educational policies and practices around the world."

Added ISC Co-director Michael O. Martin, "TIMSS is truly a rich resource. The reports provide considerable grist for the conversation about what we want schools to accomplish and how we can go about improving the teaching and learning of mathematics and science."

While the focus of the study was on overall international comparisons, said IEA Executive Director Hans Wagemaker, "participating countries now also have the opportunity to examine and explore those factors that help explain their international rankings. Such analyses provide powerful tools for policy analysis and intervention."

Among the other major findings in TIMSS 1999, students generally had positive attitudes towards mathematics and science, although less so in countries where science is taught as separate subjects at the eighth grade. In each country, researchers said, a positive self-concept in the ability to do mathematics and science was associated with higher achievement.

Eighth-grade mathematics teachers also were found to have more confidence in their teaching preparation than science teachers, with 63 percent of students on average taught by teachers who believed they were very well prepared. In contrast, eighth-grade science teachers reported only a moderate level of confidence in their preparation. Almost 40 percent of students on average were taught science by teachers who reported a low level of confidence in their preparation to teach science.

But the study directors noted that among specific countries, the degree of teacher confidence did not necessarily relate to student achievement in the subject. In the US, for example, 87 percent of students were taught mathematics by teachers with high confidence, compared to 18 percent in Thailand and 8 percent in Japan. Yet while Japanese students attained a considerably higher average achievement than their US counterparts, Thai students fared poorer than the Americans did.

Teachers across the participating countries reported that teacher lectures and teacher-guided student practice remain the two most predominant activities in mathematics class. Science teachers reported spending almost one-quarter of class time on lecture-style presentations, 15 percent on student experiments and 14 percent on teacher-guided student practice.

Videotapes of American and Japanese mathematics classes in TIMSS 1995 revealed that outside interruptions can affect the flow of the lesson and detract from instructional time, researchers said. Internationally in 1999 for both mathematics and science, about one-fifth of the students reported that their classes were interrupted pretty often or almost always.

"It is difficult to know the specifics of teacher-student exchanges in the classroom from simple surveys," said IEA Chairman Alejandro Tiana. "This, and other aspects of TIMSS, point up the need for countries to do their own in-depth analyses."

The TIMSS World Wide Web site contains more information on the study.


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