Where do U.S. students rank in science? (Would corporal punishment help?) ;)

The answer: when it comes to science, U.S. 4th graders rank #8 of 36 participating countries; 8th graders rank #11 of 48 countries. Top FOUR nations are from East Asia. (And for all the money Saudi Arabia has, their students rank waaaay near the bottom of the list.)

I invited Bart Leahy, a technical writer from Huntsville, Alabama, and blogger at Bartacus to sift through the complicated charts and figures recently released in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and boil down the basics for us.

His analysis closes with a bonus: suggestions on how we can improve the situation.  Should we do away with the failing “self-esteem building” curriculum? Perhaps follow Singapore’s lead and bring back corporal punishment? 😉

Read Bart’s full report, below,  and let us know if you have other recommendations on ways we can improve science and math education.

Analyzing the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), Part I

By Bart D. Leahy

 

At Darlene’s invitation, I was given the opportunity to review and discuss the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS). This is a large study of math and science scores among 4th and 8th grade students, with a lot of data to be crunched, which might explain why the 2007 study is being released in late 2008. Given the sheer amount of data, I will concentrate on just some of the highlights and lowlights about American students’ test scores. Darlene also provided a link to a news story from the Philadelphia perspective.

 

In the first part of my analysis, I will concentrate on the United States’ ranking compared with other nations of the world, and the federal policy implications. In part two, I will address some of the specific results in the study, and what and how we should teach our children in the future.

 

First, a little background on the study:

 

How TIMSS was Conducted

In the United States, TIMSS was administered in spring 2007. The U.S. sample is representative of both public and private school students at 4th and 8th grades nationally. In total, 257 schools and 10,350 students participated at grade four, and 239 schools and 9,723 students participated at grade eight. More information about how the assessment was developed and conducted is included in the technical notes of the U.S. report on TIMSS (http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2009001).

How TIMSS Results are Reported

Like other large-scale assessments, TIMSS was not designed to provide individual student scores, but rather national and group estimates of performance. Achievement results from TIMSS are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. In order to compare performance over time, each TIMSS administration is placed on the same scale, which has a mean of 500 and standard deviation of 100. The TIMSS scale average (500) is the mean score of the original TIMSS 1995 countries (including the United States). Countries can compare their scores over time to this standardized TIMSS scale average, as well as compare their scores directly with other countries.

All differences described using TIMSS data are statistically significant at the .05 level. Differences that are not statistically significant are either not discussed or referred to as “not measurably different” or “not statistically significant.”

In addition to numerical scale results, TIMSS includes international benchmarks at four points on the mathematics and science scales—advanced international benchmark (625), high international benchmark (550), intermediate international benchmark (475), and low international benchmark (400).

 

One thing to bear in mind, which the background document (linked above) makes clear: the 4th and 8th grade results are not exactly apples-to-apples comparisons, as different standards were used, as well as different categories of knowledge. For example, the test used to grade 8th graders the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), breaks out physical sciences and chemistry, something the 4th grade test—the TIMMS—does not. Another challenge for the statisticians is that some nations participated in one survey but not the other, while some nations participated in both.

What the Numbers Say

Below are the stats for the participating countries’ math scores and where U.S. students fit in at the 4th and 8th grade levels.

 

Average mathematics scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students, by country: 2007

TIMSS scale average 500

Black Text = Nations participating in only one survey

Red Text = Nations participating in both

Blue Text = United States scores

Grade Four (TIMMS)

Grade Eight (PISA)

Country

Average Score

Country

Average Score

Hong Kong SAR

607

Chinese Taipei

598

Singapore

599

Korea, Rep. of

597

Chinese Taipei

576

Singapore

593

Japan

568

Hong Kong SAR

572

Kazakhstan

549

Japan

570

Russian Federation

544

Hungary

517

England

541

England

513

Latvia

537

Russian Federation

512

Netherlands

535

United States

508

Lithuania

530

Lithuania

506

United States

529

Czech Republic

504

Germany

525

Slovenia

501

Denmark

523

Armenia

499

Australia

516

Australia

496

Hungary

510

Sweden

491

Italy

507

Malta

488

Austria

505

Scotland

487

Sweden

503

Serbia

486

Slovenia

502

Italy

480

Armenia

500

Malaysia

474

Slovak Republic

496

Norway

469

Scotland

494

Cyprus

465

New Zealand

492

Bulgaria

464

Czech Republic

486

Israel

463

Norway

473

Ukraine

462

Ukraine

469

Romania

461

Georgia

438

Bosnia and Herzegovina

456

Iran, Islamic Rep. of

402

Lebanon

449

Algeria

378

Thailand

441

Colombia

355

Turkey

432

Morocco

341

Jordan

427

El Salvador

330

Tunisia

420

Tunisia

327

Georgia

410

Kuwait

316

Iran, Islamic Rep. of

403

Qatar

296

Bahrain

398

Yemen

224

Indonesia

397

 

 

Syrian Arab Republic

395

 

 

Egypt

391

 

 

Algeria

387

 

 

Colombia

380

 

 

Oman

372

 

 

Palestinian Nat’l Auth.

367

 

 

Botswana

364

 

 

Kuwait

354

 

 

El Salvador

340

 

 

Saudi Arabia

329

 

 

Ghana

309

 

 

Qatar

307

 

Now you can slice and dice these numbers any way you like. There’s plenty to work with in just these two data sets. Looking at the tables, one can make the following statements without being too controversial:

 

  • The top five nations’ students are all from Asia; the top four are from East Asian nations.
  • U.S. fourth grade students are ranked 11th out of 36 nations participating.
  • The U.S. students’ rank goes up to 9th out of 48 nations participating among eighth graders, but the average score is lower by 21 points.
  • U.S. students trail behind several of our economic competitors in math scores, such as Hong Kong, Japan, and Russia, but also behind developing nations like Kazakhstan.
  • It is difficult to determine the rankings of U.S. students compared to our largest economic competitors, the People’s Republic of China and India, as they did not participate in the survey. Of the nations ahead of the U.S., all of them have smaller populations.

 

Average science scores of fourth and eighth-grade students, by country: 2007

TIMSS scale average 500

Black Text = Nations participating in only one survey

Red Text = Nations participating in both

Blue Text = United States scores

Grade Four (TIMMS)

Grade Eight (PISA)

Country

Average Score

Country

Average Score

Singapore

587

Singapore

567

Chinese Taipei

557

Chinese Taipei

561

Hong Kong SAR

554

Japan

554

Japan

548

Korea, Rep. of

553

Russian Federation

546

England

542

Latvia

542

Hungary

539

England

542

Czech Republic

539

United States

539

Slovenia

538

Hungary

536

Hong Kong SAR

530

Italy

535

Russian Federation

530

Kazakhstan

533

United States

520

Germany

528

Lithuania

519

Australia

527

Australia

515

Slovak Republic

526

Sweden

511

Austria

526

Scotland

496

Sweden

525

Italy

495

Netherlands

523

Armenia

488

Slovenia

518

Norway

487

Denmark

517

Ukraine

485

Czech Republic

515

Jordan

482

Lithuania

514

Malaysia

471

New Zealand

504

Thailand

471

Scotland

500

Serbia

470

Armenia

484

Bulgaria

470

Norway

477

Israel

468

Ukraine

474

Bahrain

467

Iran, Islamic Rep. of

436

Bosnia and Herzegovina

466

Georgia

418

Romania

462

Colombia

400

Iran, Islamic Rep. of

459

El Salvador

390

Malta

457

Algeria

354

Turkey

454

Kuwait

348

Syrian Arab Republic

452

Tunisia

318

Cyprus

452

Morocco

297

Tunisia

445

Qatar

294

Indonesia

427

Yemen

197

Oman

423

 

 

Georgia

421

 

 

Kuwait

418

 

 

Colombia

417

 

 

Lebanon

414

 

 

Egypt

408

 

 

Algeria

408

 

 

Palestinian Nat’l Auth.

404

 

 

Saudi Arabia

403

 

 

El Salvador

387

 

 

Botswana

355

 

 

Qatar

319

 

 

Ghana

303

 

Again, from a high level, here are the facts as writ in the science category:

  • The top four nations are again from East Asia.
  • U.S. fourth graders come out 8th out of 36 in science, while U.S. eighth graders 11th out of 48 participating nations.
  • U.S. students’ scores and ranking dropped between fourth and eighth grades.
  • The top two nations’ students remained the top two in the four-year gap. All of the participating nations ahead of the U.S. in fourth grade remained ahead of the U.S. in eighth grade.
  • The average grades for the sciences are all a few points lower than the average math scores.

 

Now I will step into the mine field.

What to Do About It All

The numbers are what they are. The controversy starts when we have to decide what to do about them. Let’s assume the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining the largest, most advanced, and most prosperous economy in the world. Based on that assumption, one would also presume that we can and should do something.

 

As a purely empirical matter, we need to look at what the nations at the top are doing right, and determine what actions we can duplicate or translate to an American educational environment. More painfully, we must face realistically what things we’re doing wrong and either fix or stop doing them.

 

Singapore, for example, has an educational tradition rooted in Chinese Imperial examination practices, which emphasized long study and high expectations. That seems simple enough, and ideally all parents would have the same expectations for their children. However, are American parents prepared to accept schools that expect long hours of studying or administer corporal punishment (e.g. paddling, spanking)? Recall the outrage over the caning of an 18-year-old American for vandalism. Or, are educators prepared to focus on “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic” and dispense with a “self-esteem building” curriculum? Would the best teachers be prepared to work at the worst schools with an expectation of improving things and being rewarded according accordingly? Is the federal government prepared to give up centralized control of educational practices to allow the states or local communities determine how best to meet the needs of their students?

 

It depends on how badly we want to improve and what prices we are willing to pay to remain competitive in the world.

 

But rather than look to Singapore or Japan, we can simply focus on the two best-performing American states, Massachusetts and Minnesota. What lessons might we learn from those states’ practices, and how far can other states go to duplicate their success, if feasible?

 

First, both are Northern, liberal (“blue”) states, where higher taxes and “big good government” are expected. These practices might go over fine in some areas, but would be quite a shift for anti-tax, limited-government “red states.” But the bottom-line translation might just be “You get what you pay for.”

 

What else might one investigate? Their curricula? The respective education departments can be found here for MA and here for MN. I leave that exercise to the reader. Their diversity? Unlikely—Massachusetts is 89% white, Minnesota 92%. Class size? Money spent per student? The numbers vary: $11,981 per student in Massachusetts, $9,138 per student in Minnesota (Alabama, where I live, spends $7,646 per student and had 18% of its students performing above average, as opposed to Massachusetts, which had 51% of its students performing above average). Physical infrastructure? More importantly, even if all other external factors were somehow magically made equal, could the results all be made equal nationwide? I’ll try to answer some of that last question in part two.

 

This seems to me like a great opportunity for Obama to demonstrate the strength of America’s diversity and creativity by decentralizing our educational establishment. After all, if we have one, centralized education system via No Child Left Behind and that system is causing our students to fall behind other nations of the world, then that system needs to be fixed. Or diversified. Or replaced.

 

Devolution would offer each state the opportunity to perform its own local experiments in educational achievement. Federal funding could continue, but control and “strings” would exist at the state or local levels. The internet would allow local school districts to observe or share teaching ideas and copy them (or not) elsewhere. Local control of curricula would also open the door to vouchers, allowing for more competition and fewer perverse disincentives to achievement, like cutting funding to struggling schools or good teachers not sharing their ideas for fear of losing merit pay to other teachers. If you think I’m kidding about the latter item, here’s what the NEA says about merit pay:

 

Merit pay systems force teachers to compete, rather than cooperate. They create a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. This is especially true because there is always a limited pool of money for merit pay. Thus, the number-one way teachers learn their craft –learning from their colleagues — is effectively shut down. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.

 

(Mind you, there are probably ways to measure “merit” based on training and cooperating with others, and every profession works within a “limited pool of money” for merit pay, but we’ll leave those arguments aside for now.)

 

Will all of the local educational experiments succeed? Probably not. However, parallel, diversified approaches would have to be better than one system failing everybody at once. Will the U.S. be willing to fix what needs to be fixed? Again, it depends on how badly we want to.

 

Bart Leahy is a technical writer living in Huntsville, Alabama. He blogs regularly at http://bartacus.blogspot.com.

 

Keywords: TIMMS, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, 2007 Report, U.S. test scores, academic achievement, science, technology, engineering, math, STEM, National Center for Education Statistics, ranking, 4th grade, 8th grade, merit pay, local curriculum control, decentralization, No Child Left Behind, NEA, National Education Association, Massachusetts, Minnesota

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  • 1. We would be much, much, better off if we did not lose our children in early elementary school by running over individual development rates in reading and math. If we took reading and math at a child’s developmental rate in early elementary school, we would have more capable scholars in high school.
    2. We would be far more successful with most children if we took a more hands-on Montessori-like approach to math. Giving our children an experiential base from which to abstract, would not only create better mathematicians, but perhaps passionate ones.
    3. Science should begin early, be exploratory and hands-on. All two-year-olds are already scientists. Think who they would be if they were allowed to gather information, construct and test hypotheses beginning in elementary school and carried into college.

    We create our disenchanted high-school dropouts and our dispassionate learners in kindergarten. No wonder we are ‘behind’ in math and science.

  • 1. We would be much, much, better off if we did not lose our children in early elementary school by running over individual development rates in reading and math. If we took reading and math at a child’s developmental rate in early elementary school, we would have more capable scholars in high school.
    2. We would be far more successful with most children if we took a more hands-on Montessori-like approach to math. Giving our children an experiential base from which to abstract, would not only create better mathematicians, but perhaps passionate ones.
    3. Science should begin early, be exploratory and hands-on. All two-year-olds are already scientists. Think who they would be if they were allowed to gather information, construct and test hypotheses beginning in elementary school and carried into college.

    We create our disenchanted high-school dropouts and our dispassionate learners in kindergarten. No wonder we are ‘behind’ in math and science.