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Global Study Assesses ‘Educational Excellence’

TIMSS & PIRLS executive directors Michael Martin and Ina Mullis (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 31, 2013

It’s a long-held belief that parental and administrative support helps breed academic success; now there’s data to back that up. A new study released by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) and the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College examines what makes up “cultural educational excellence” while quantifying the strengths of best practices at school, and at home.

“The data supports many long-held beliefs about good ways of raising your children and preparing them for school,” said Lynch School of Education Research Professor Michael Martin, who along with Lynch School Professor Ina Mullis is co-executive director of TIMSS & PIRLS and the study’s co-author. “The analysis focuses on ‘How does that work, what’s behind that?’ There’s never been data to do this, to show this mechanism, this path.”

The study, titled “TIMSS and PIRLS 2011: Relationships Among Reading, Mathematics and Science Achievement at the Fourth Grade – Implications for Early Learning,” is the first report to look at the issue of cultural excellence: what parents, schools, and students are doing to improve success in reading, math and science. Researchers used data from 180,000 students, 170,000 parents, 14,000 teachers, and 6,000 principals across 34 countries.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the first global assessment of mathematics and science to provide data about trends over time, measuring achievement in these subjects every four years at the fourth and eighth grades since 1995. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is one of the most influential global evaluations of reading literacy in the world.

“This is the biggest and most comprehensive set of data at this grade level — fourth-grade, 10-year-old kids — by far,” said Martin. “There’s never been data from so many countries on such a level of achievement – really good measures of mathematics, science, reading achievement – as well as background from questionnaires to the parents primarily, and from the school principals, teachers, students themselves, data from all of these sources. There’s never been a set of data like this.”

While researchers found each country has a unique approach towards education, the data also pointed to across-the-board similarities in school and home that affect achievement.

“The culture of educational excellence starts in the home,” said Mullis. “It follows with a school that has a focus on educational success by all the parties concerned – the teachers, the administration, the parents, the students themselves. It continues into the classroom with a teacher who is engaging students. We know then we will have students in the end who have higher achievement, a higher motivation, and a higher probability of becoming life-long learners.”

Added Martin, “Obviously, well-educated parents tend to buy lots of books, tend to engage in activities with their kids, tend to read to them, do literacy tasks and numeracy tasks. Those kids, when they begin school, are able to do these things.  They know what a book is, they can do their ABCs, they can read, even when they start. And of course, that’s a huge, huge boost to their achievement in school. They never lose that advantage, they start school with an advantage and they never lose it.

“So we were digging into how that advantage comes about, and what the mechanism of this is. It all starts at home and this isn’t news, but the amount of data that we have on how it works is new.”

More than half of the 34 participating countries were able to get 90 percent or more of fourth-grade students to a basic level of proficiency in reading, math, and science (though the US wasn’t included in this study, 98 percent of fourth-graders reached basic proficiency in reading in 2011, 96 percent in math and science) while five countries saw 35 percent of their students reach a high level of achievement in those subject areas.

“For many years, we’ve known that kids from homes of educated parents with lots of reading materials will do better in school in the fourth grade,” said Martin. “But we have really good data at TIMSS and PIRLS, reports from parents, about not only on the materials they have in the home but the numerous literacy activities they engage their children with, and their estimate of just how competent the kids were in being able to read and write, and to do basic things when they began primary school. And then from an assessment result we have what they can do in the fourth grade.”

The study also underscored the across-the-board advantages of being a better reader.

“The effect of concentrating on these literacy activities also enhanced student achievement in mathematics and science,” said Mullis. “We found that as the amount of reading increased, the students who weren’t very good readers had more and more difficulty with the math and science items. Reading is crucial to success in school. It’s the glue that’s holding it together.”

The study “TIMSS and PIRLS 2011: Relationships Among Reading, Mathematics and Science Achievement at the Fourth Grade – Implications for Early Learning” is available online