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Lynch School of Education


eColloquia Newsletter

TIMSS and PIRLS results

By William Bole

Fourth and eighth graders in East Asian countries are outperforming the rest of their peers in math, science, and reading literacy, and those who’ve gone to preschool enjoy a distinct international advantage, according to the Lynch School’s TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center’s latest review of global student achievement.

Boston College researchers worked with representatives in 63 nations and 14 states and regional jurisdictions to conduct assessments of math and science for the 2011 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). The studies were released simultaneously for the first time on December 11 this year.

The tests, which are administered to statistical samplings of approximately 900,000 students worldwide, are widely considered the preeminent global assessments of student performance. TIMSS, which was first administered in 1995, is conducted every four years; PIRLS, added in 2001, has been given every five. The two were offered concurrently for the first time in 2011.

The tests’ combined results suggest that student achievement worldwide is improving. For example, fourth graders’ math scores have gone up in 12 of the countries that originally participated in TIMSS; science scores have improved in eight countries, according to the study center. Meanwhile, since PIRLS was initiated (mainly for fourth graders), 10 countries have ramped up their reading achievement at that level. Eighth-grade math achievement, by contrast, has lagged.

“A number of countries have been working hard to improve their educational achievement, by redeveloping curricula, for example, raising standards for teacher certification, or increasing the number of years of schooling,” Professors Ina V.S. Mullis and Michael O. Martin, the center’s codirectors, said in a joint statement issued December 11. “It is impressive that so many have been able to improve student performance since 1995.”

Michael O. Martin and Ina V.S. Mullis, TIMSS and PIRLS executive directors

The United States showed improvement in all test measures, and U.S. eighth graders ranked ninth among TIMSS performers. Meanwhile, five East Asian countries—Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, and Japan—were the top TIMSS performers.

East Asia also stood out among the 49 countries that participated in the PIRLS assessment last year: Hong Kong and Singapore were among the four top-performing countries together with Russia and Finland. A second group of high achievers included, among others, the United States and Chinese Taipei. Singapore—known for its especially rigorous academic standards—racked up the highest scores across the board.

Massachusetts, which participated separately in the TIMSS assessment, would be the fifth-best scorer in the world if it were a country. Only Singapore outscored Massachusetts eighth-traders in the science part of the test. In math, the Bay State trailed only South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, and Japan.

The TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center expanded the scope of its study in 2011 to include surveys of test takers’ parents and teachers, school administrators, and the students themselves. Among the more significant findings: Students who attended preschool the longest achieved the highest scores in all three subjects. And those students whose parents reported reading to them or playing number games with them were generally among the highest achievers.

View video on featured findings from TIMSS and PIRLS 2011, read executive summaries, and download reports

Read Boston College Magazine story

Read additional perspectives in Global Trends in Educational Policy and Practice

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