New Math and Science Results: A Glass Half Full and Half Empty

December 11, 2012

Optimists and pessimists alike will find something to embrace in the results of the 2011 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). (The report just went public this morning.) All in all, the news about U.S. 4th and 8th graders’ math and science performance wasn’t as dire as we’ve come to expect. That said, we should beware the devil in the details. Let's not ignore our progress, but let's also acknowledge how far we still have to go.

The glass half full

First, the good news:

  • In 4th grade math, U.S. students scored significantly worse than students in only 7 countries and significantly better than students in 37. In 8th grade, we were behind 6 countries and ahead of 28. We were also in pretty good company, scoring on par with countries like Finland, England and the Netherlands, and ahead of countries like Germany, Sweden and Austria.
  • In 4th grade science, only 6 countries were significantly ahead of us and 43 significantly behind. In 8th grade, it was 8 ahead and 29 behind. Again, we outperformed quite a few developed countries.
  • U.S. students have made big gains since 1995 and (in math, at least) some gains since 2007.
  • Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota did us especially proud, placing among students in the top-scoring countries. In science, for example, Massachusetts 8th graders were second only to students in Singapore.

The glass half empty

Don’t pop the champagne just yet. There’s still more than enough to be worried about:

  • The top-scoring countries did much better than the U.S. did, even if our overall rank wasn’t so dismal. The distance between the Republic of Korea and the U.S. in 8th grade math was 104 points. That exceeds the distance between the U.S. and Jordan, which was in the bottom ten nations.
  • A far smaller share of our students scored at the “Advanced” level. In 8th grade math, for example, 7 percent of our students reached “Advanced.” Compare that to 49 percent of students in Chinese Taipei and 48 percent of students in Singapore.
  • Many of our students lost ground as they get older. On average, their scores slipped between 4th and 8th grades, and 8th graders were less likely than 4th graders to score “Advanced.” Students in the top five countries, by contrast, tended to hang on to their lofty positions as they got older.
  • U.S. students in the lowest income bracket lost the most ground, becoming less competitive with students in other nations as they moved from 4th to 8th grade.
  • The U.S. ranked near the top in gender inequality—hardly a point of pride. In science, for example, girls lagged 10 points behind boys in 4th grade and 11 points behind in 8th.

More than a horse race

So what do we make of all this? One way to use these results is to learn from the countries and schools systems that have made the greatest strides. For example, some might think those high-flying Singaporeans are just wired to be better at science than we are, but our 4th graders outperformed theirs by a pretty wide margin in 1995. Yet Singapore surged ahead a stunning 60 points in 16 years and left us in the dust.

And look at Portugal. Students in that country gained an astounding 90 points in 4th grade math and 70 in 4th grade science since 1995. What did they do to achieve this success?

And then there’s Sweden. On average, Swedish 8th graders lost 55 points in 8th grade math and 43 in 8th grade science since 1995, tumbling far down the rankings. Ouch!

If there’s any lesson in all of this, it’s that nationality is not destiny. Countries can shape their own fates. It's time to dig in to those results and figure out what we should do to shape ours.

Tags: math, science


Canadian hockey players at the professional level generally have birthdays from January to March. That's because when these men were about five, they were on average quite a bit older than their peers. The coaches favored them because they were better. They got more attention and excelled. But who cares how well five year olds play hockey?

And the same is true for math. It's way more important to understand how high school graduates are doing in math than how they do when in 4th or 8th grade. The Finns don't even test them at that age. Why not? Well, that's because the teachers know what their students need the most as individuals, so a test is a waste of time and produces needless anxiety. Tests mostly teach test taking. Test scores promote the mostly destructive practice of comparing students against each other. The real goal should be competence. Tests don't measure competence.

I went from introductory algebra in 8th grade to college calculus in 11th. My grades or test scores from 8th grade would have said nothing about my performance four years later.

The Finns generally score among the top internationally. It wasn't always that way. They decided to do it. Education is the way to national wealth. They started their program in the late 1960's. The rest of the world is at least forty years behind. We need to start our own evidence based programs. Educators, not politics, should drive education.

Stephen, doesn't your Canadian hockey example underscore the point that early attention to how students are doing can add up to gains later on? If your analogy holds, then we'd do our most vulnerable students a real disservice by not testing early on. There is a Matthew effect in schooling as in hockey, after all. Students who have advantages early on are favored in many ways. They get the most experienced and knowledgable teachers, have access to the best, most challenging courses, the best equipment, etc. etc.

One major reason for these early tests is to determine what students need the most support so that we can better provide it. Pitting students against each other can certainly be destructive, but that is not the goal of those tests.

While your grades and test scores in 8th grade might not have predicted your performance in calculus in 11th, the fact is that grades and scores on certain tests to tend to predict students' performance later on, sometimes with depressing accuracy. As a matter of policy, it's hard to intervene in those students' lives if we don't know where they're headed.

I've never heard the born-in-January theory but that's interesting. I was born in January and I was top academically and athletically in my class in my early years. I was still good later on but people had caught up mid-puberty.