Statement by Dr. Albert Beaton

June 10, 1997



Presentation of TIMSS International Results

It is my pleasure to release the second set of international achievement results from TIMSS, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Today's results describe the mathematics and science achievement of third- and fourth-grade students in 26 countries around the world. These results are detailed in two companion volumes:

Mathematics Achievement in the Primary School Years

Science Achievement in the Primary School Years

The first TIMSS international achievement results were presented last November and covered student achievement in the seventh and eighth grades.

Both the reports presented today and the previous reports include not only information about the participating countries' relative standings but also up-to-date information about their national strengths and weaknesses, as well as their students' attitudes, backgrounds, and educational experiences.

Before giving results, I believe that it is important to note that the TIMSS study was conducted with great 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 that were 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.

In mathematics, Singapore and Korea were the top-performing countries at both the third and the fourth grades. Japan and Hong Kong were also very high performers, as were the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

In science, Korea was the top-performing country at both the third and the fourth grades. Japan, the United States, Austria, and Australia also performed very well at both grades.

A striking finding, in each subject area, was the large difference in average performance between the top- and bottom-performing countries. This same result was found at the seventh and eighth grades. Despite the wide gap between the highest and lowest achieving countries, the difference between any given country and the next higher or lower performing country was often small or even negligible.

Most countries (9 out of 12) that performed above the international average in mathematics at the fourth grade also did so at the eighth grade. However, Ireland and Australia were above the international average at the fourth grade but about average at the eighth grade. The United States was above average in the fourth grade and below average in the eighth. (See Exhibit 3)

In science, most countries (9 out of 13) that performed above the international average in the fourth grade also did so in the eighth grade. The exceptions were Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States. These countries performed above the international average at the fourth grade but close to the average at the eighth grade.

Within each of the two subject areas, the TIMSS tests covered several important content areas. The six content areas in mathematics include: (1) whole numbers; (2) fractions and proportionality; (3) measurement, estimation, and number sense; (4) data representation, analysis, and probability; (5) geometry; and (6) patterns, relations, and functions. The four content areas in science were: (1) earth science; (2) life science; (3) physical science; and (4) environmental issues and the nature of science.

Nearly all countries did relatively better in some content areas than in others. For example, in science at the fourth grade, Korea did better in the physical science and environmental parts of the test than it did on the test as a whole, and less well in life science. Japan also did relatively better on physical science questions but less well in

earth and life sciences. The United States did relatively better on the environmental questions but less well on questions on physical science. These findings are consistent with the idea that countries have different curricular emphases. A similar table is available for mathematics.

Because providing information on how to improve educational equality is central to TIMSS, the study was designed to examine the equality of opportunity-to-learn from a number of perspectives, including gender. Lower achievement for girls can have serious economic implications in their lives and may translate into lower participation in technology and science-related careers. For most countries, gender differences in mathematics achievement were minimal or essentially non-existent. However, it should be noted that the larger differences that did exist favored boys. In about half the countries, and internationally, boys had significantly higher mean science achievement than girls at both the third and fourth grades. This is attributable mainly to significantly higher performance by boys in earth science and physical science. Gender differences in science at the third and fourth grades were much less pervasive than at the seventh and eighth grades.

As in the previous TIMSS reports, we did not find simple relationships between student performance and school variables such as the amount of homework, length of the school day or year, or the amount of time spent in mathematics and science classes. The TIMSS data underscore the important 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 clear that no single factor can be properly considered in isolation from others.

For example, there was a considerable variation in class size among the TIMSS countries. However, there is no simple relationship across countries between the average class size and student performance; in fact, high-scoring Korea averaged 43 students per class, the largest average class size of any TIMSS country. In some countries, being in a small class may be associated with high socioeconomic status and in others it may be indicative of the need for remedial instruction. Other factors such as the amount of time spent on homework may be indicative of high student aspiration or of low past performance. Disentangling and understanding the relationships of these variables to student performance will require further research.

There are, however, some results that are fairly consistent in the TIMSS countries:

Home factors, such as educational resources and books in the home, were strongly related to mathematics and science achievement in all participating countries.

In nearly every country, an overwhelming majority of fourth graders reported that they like or strongly like mathematics and science. Boys and girls were equally positive.

For normal school days, fourth-grade students in most countries reported averaging approximately an hour studying or doing homework in mathematics and between a half-hour and an hour studying science.

Teachers in most countries reported that mathematics classes typically meet for three or four hours a week, on average. In comparison, teachers in about half of the countries report that science is taught for less than two hours per week. In about one-fifth of the countries, science instruction for most students is integrated with the teaching of other subjects.

In most countries, the majority of fourth-grade students were taught mathematics and science by female teachers. Usually, both subjects were taught by the same teacher.

In most countries, the factor that teachers mentioned most often as limiting how they teach mathematics and science was the challenge of catering to students of different academic abilities. Other limiting factors were a high student/teacher ratio, a shortage of equipment for use in instruction, and the burden of dealing with disruptive students.

The textbook was the major written source mathematics teachers used in deciding how to present a topic to their classes.

In the short time available, I have been able to share only a few of the 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. There is more to come. We have yet to release the reports describing the results of the TIMSS performance assessment or of the achievement of high school seniors. These reports will help complete the basic 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. In addition, to further the use of these data for research, the TIMSS database will be made available to researchers after September 30th of this year.


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