Statement by Dr. Albert Beaton

February 24, 1998



Presentation of TIMSS International Results

It is my pleasure to release the third set of international achievement results from TIMSS, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Today's results describe mathematics and science achievement of students in their final year of secondary school in 24 countries around the world. Taken together with the previously-released results for the primary and middle school years, the results for the students in their final year of secondary school provide a comprehensive international perspective on student achievement in mathematics and science from the primary through the secondary school years.

Because the 24 participating countries have such different upper secondary school systems, testing final-year students was a special challenge for TIMSS. In most TIMSS countries, students' final year of school depends on whether they are following an academic, technical, or apprenticeship program.

Given the extensive diversity of students' curricula there also were many questions about what mathematics and science understandings students should have to meet the challenges beyond secondary school. Thus, TIMSS developed three different tests. The mathematics and science literacy test was designed for all final-year students, regardless of their school curriculum. By and large, the purpose of this test was to measure how well students can use their knowledge in addressing real-world problems having a mathematics or science component. This test was designed to be reported separately for mathematics and for science.

There also was great interest on the part of some TIMSS countries to determine what school-leaving students with special preparation in these subjects know and can do. Thus, a second test was developed for students having taken advanced mathematics, and a third test for those having studied physics. Not all of the 24 countries participated in all three parts of the testing.

Both the report 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.

First I am going to present the results for mathematics and science literacy for all final-year students. Twenty-one countries participated in this part of the study.

The Netherlands and Sweden were the top-performing countries. Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, and Austria also performed above the international average of the 21 countries. Countries performing below the international average were Hungary, the Russian Federation, Italy, the United States, Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa.

Selectivity in education systems and sampling approaches did not seem to be much of a factor in the mathematics and science literacy testing. We looked at performance for the top 25% of the students in the entire school-leaving age cohort, and the same four countries were the highest performers.

When the results were looked at separately for mathematics and science, the top-performers in mathematics literacy were the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland. The top-performers in science literacy were Sweden, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Norway.

Countries that had higher achievement in mathematics literacy than in science literacy were Denmark, France, Hungary, Lithuania, and Switzerland. Those with higher achievement in science literacy were Canada, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.

As a matter of concern, there were substantial gender differences in most countries. Males had higher achievement than females in mathematics and science literacy in all countries except South Africa. This also was true for science literacy. In mathematics literacy, there were significant gender differences in all but three countries (Hungary, the United States, and South Africa).

As would be expected, students taking mathematics performed better in mathematics literacy than those no longer studying the subject. Similarly, there was a positive association between taking science subjects and performance in science literacy. Yet, enrollment in these subjects varied across countries. In about half of the countries, students seemed to take mathematics throughout secondary school, regardless of their educational program or track, whereas in Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States one-third or more of the final-year students were not taking mathematics at the time of testing. Higher percentages of students in most countries reported that they were not taking science (about half or more in Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States).

Next I would like to turn to the results for students having taken advanced courses in mathematics. The advanced mathematics test covered primarily the content areas of equations and functions, calculus, and geometry. Sixteen countries participated in this part of the study. In general, the testing covered between 10 and 20 percent of the school-leaving age cohort in each country.

Led by France, the countries performing above the international average of the 16 countries also included the Russian Federation, Switzerland, Denmark, Cyprus, and Lithuania. The countries performing below the international average included the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, and Austria.

Significant gender differences favoring males in advanced mathematics achievement were found in all countries except Greece, Cyprus, Australia, Italy, and Slovenia. In some countries many more males than females have taken advanced mathematics courses, but this varied.

Advanced mathematics students were asked how often several different types of instructional activities were used in their classrooms. Among these, the two most closely associated with high achievement were doing reasoning tasks frequently and spending time solving equations.

Calculator use by final-year advanced mathematics students was very common. In Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, more than 80 percent of the students reported using a calculator daily (at home, at school, or anywhere else). Generally, the advanced mathematics students with the highest average achievement were those who reported the highest level of calculator use.

Among the final-year students taking advanced mathematics, the majority in every country reported that they plan to attend university. When asked about their plans for future study, the most popular choices were business, health sciences, and engineering.

Even though not many students chose mathematics as their preferred area of study, the majority of the students in many of the countries agreed that they would like a job that involved using mathematics, with more males than females so agreeing.

The physics test was designed to measure five content areas: mechanics; electricity and magnetism; heat; wave phenomena; and modern physics – particle, quantum and astrophysics, and relativity. Sixteen countries also took part in the physics study.

Norway and Sweden had the highest average physics achievement. The Russian Federation and Denmark also performed above the international average. Six countries performed below the international average. The United States had significantly lower achievement than every country except Austria.

Males had significantly higher physics achievement than females in all but one country (Latvia). Although the proportions of males and females taking physics were about equal in Canada, Latvia, the Russian Federation, Switzerland, and the United States, in several countries, males outnumbered females by two or three to one.

Like the plans for further education of final-year students having taken advanced mathematics, those of final-year physics students center mainly on university. Although their plans for future study varied considerably across countries, the most popular choices for physics students were engineering, mathematics or computer/information sciences, health sciences, and business. While more females than males chose health sciences, males often outnumbered females by a substantial margin in engineering, and in mathematics or computer/information sciences.

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 report released today. As in the previous TIMSS reports, we did not find simple relationships between student performance and school variables such as the amount of homework or the amount of time spent in mathematics and physics 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. 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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