Statement by Dr. Albert Beaton

November 20, 1996



Presentation of TIMSS International Results

I am pleased to present the first international achievement results from TIMSS. The reports released today from this landmark study describe the mathematics and science achievement of seventh- and eighth-grade students in 41 countries around the world.

In the competitive world of the next century, it is clear that a technologically-advanced citizenry will be required for a country to maintain and improve the lives and living conditions of its population. To stay abreast of continuing developments, it is important for national school systems to provide their students with strong competencies in mathematics and science, as well as an appreciation of the importance of these subjects.

The TIMSS results provide a lens through which each participating country can examine its own educational system with an international perspective. International comparisons can provide data to assist educators, business leaders, teachers, and parents as they strive to improve educational outcomes. Information about what students know and can do internationally can be used to set national achievement goals, information about how subjects are taught and learned can give hints for improving curricula and teaching practices, and information about students' backgrounds and attitudes can suggest ways of stimulating students' willingness to study and learn.

TIMSS was conducted with attention to quality at every step of the way. Rigorous procedures were designed specifically to translate the tests, and numerous regional training sessions were held in data collection and scoring procedures. Quality control monitors observed testing sessions and reported back to the International Study Center at Boston College. The samples of students selected for testing were scrutinized according to rigorous standards designed to prevent bias and ensure comparability. Prior to analysis, the data from each country were subjected to exhaustive checks for accuracy and consistency.

The two companion volumes, Mathematics Achievement in the Middle School Years and Science Achievement in the Middle School Years, provide countries' relative standings in achievement as well as up-to-date information about their students' attitudes, backgrounds, and educational experiences.

In mathematics, Singapore was the top-performing country at both the eighth and seventh grades. Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong also performed very well at both grades as did Flemish-speaking Belgium and the Czech Republic.

In science, too, Singapore was the top-performing country at both grades. The Czech Republic, Japan, and Korea also did very well at both grades.

In both mathematics and science, lower-performing countries included Colombia, Kuwait, and South Africa.

Perhaps the most striking finding, in each subject area, was the large difference in average achievement between the top- and bottom-performing countries. For example, Singapore averaged more than 250 points above South Africa across subjects and grades. Despite the wide gap between the highest and lowest achievers, however, the difference between any given country and the next lowest ranking one was often very small or even negligible.

Within each of the two subject areas, the TIMSS tests covered several important content areas. The six mathematics content areas included: fractions and number sense; measurement; proportionality; data representation, analysis, and probability; geometry and algebra. Five content areas were covered in science: earth science, life science, physics, chemistry, and environmental issues and the nature of science. Consistent with the idea of countries having different curricular emphases, nearly all countries did relatively better in some content areas than others. In mathematics, for example, countries that performed relatively better in fractions and number sense tended to be different from those that performed relatively better in geometry and algebra.

Because providing information on how to improve educational equality is central to TIMSS, the study was designed to examine equity in opportunity to learn from a number of perspectives, including gender. In particular, mathematics has been and continues to be a "critical filter" that inhibits participation in many occupations. Thus, lower achievement for girls can have serious economic implications for them in their careers. Similarly, lower achievement in science translates into lower participation by females in technology and science-related careers.

For most countries, gender differences in mathematics achievement were minimal or essentially non-existent. Although, it should be noted that the few differences that did exist favored boys rather than girls. In contrast, gender differences in achievement were pervasive in science. Boys outperformed girls in most countries, especially in physics, chemistry, and earth science.

Because students' attitudes can be related to educational achievement in ways that reinforce higher or lower performance, TIMSS asked students about their perceptions of mathematics and science. Most, but not all, eighth graders reported liking mathematics and science to some degree. In countries where there were gender differences in students' views, boys usually were more positive towards these two subjects than girls.

In almost every country, the majority of students agreed that they did well in mathematics and science -- a perception that did not always coincide with their achievement on TIMSS. Interestingly, some of the countries with the highest achievement also were those whose students had the most negative perceptions of success -- Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong.

Home factors were strongly related to mathematics and science achievement in every TIMSS country. Even though this finding was not unexpected, it still is remarkable to see such consistent patterns replicated 41 times. Strong positive relationships were found between achievement and having study aids in the home, including a dictionary, computer, and study desk for the student's own use. The number of books in the home also was a positive indicator of student performance, as was parents' education. In every country, students whose parents had more education also had higher achievement in mathematics and science.

In comparison to the positive relationships observed between achievement and home factors, the relationships were less clear between achievement and various instructional variables. The TIMSS data underscore the point that there are no simple answers to complex questions, such as: How can schools improve educational achievement? Further, as we review the data, it is increasingly apparent that no single factor can be properly considered in isolation from others.

For example, there was considerable variation in class size among the TIMSS countries, but the relationship between class size and achievement varied from country to country. Across countries, high-achieving Korea reported the largest classes among the TIMSS countries. Most typically, students were in mathematics and science classes of fewer than 30 students. Korea was a notable exception, with most students in classes of 40 or more.

Common sense and considerable research suggest that increased time on task can yield commensurate increases in achievement. Teachers in most countries reported that mathematics and science classes typically meet for 2 to 3 hours each week, although from 3´ to 5 hours was common for a number of countries. The data, however, revealed no clear pattern between the number of in-class instructional hours and achievement. Generally, it is important to keep in mind the complexity of relationships between instruction and achievement. In tracked systems, many characteristics of instruction can be related to the track. For example, lower-performing students may be given additional in-school instruction.

Homework is another way of increasing instructional time. Notwithstanding a considerable range in student reports, eighth graders in about half the countries reported doing an average of 2 to 3 hours of homework each day. Most typically, students reported studying mathematics for roughly an hour each day, and science for somewhat less than that. Again, however, the relationship between amount of homework assigned and achievement was not straightforward. High-performing countries assigning relatively low levels of homework included Japan, the Czech Republic, and Flemish-speaking Belgium.

As a related comment on the time students spend studying, eighth graders in most countries reported spending as much out-of-school time each day in non-academic activities as they did in academic activities. Frequently, students reported watching 1 or 2 hours of television each day as well as spending several hours playing or talking with friends, and nearly 2 hours playing sports. (Of course, for teenagers, these activities often occur simultaneously, such as watching television and talking with friends on the phone.)

In the short time available, I have been able to share only some highlights from the wealth of data contained in the two reports released today. I would like to emphasize their richness of detail and breadth of coverage. Even more, I would like to stress that these reports represent only the first steps in realizing the full potential of the TIMSS data. We have yet to release the reports presenting the initial results for third- and fourth-grade students as well as those describing achievement for students in their final year of secondary school. Those reports will help complete the picture of mathematics and science education across countries. Beyond that, we look forward to conducting further analyses to investigate the complex interplay among the cultural, social, attitudinal, and instructional factors that support high student achievement.


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