U.S. Math Scores Improve Marginally as Science Scores Stagnate

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Fourth- and eighth-grade students in the United States, on the whole, have improved their math scores marginally since 1995, up about 2.12 percent for fourth-graders and 3.25 percent for eighth-graders, according to data from the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, released this week by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Science scores for these students were unchanged.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, is a periodic, international evaluation of math and science achievement in K-12. In the latest evaluation, the United States ranked 11th in math in the world (of the 36 countries participating in the study) among fourth-graders and ninth (of 48 participating countries) among eighth-graders. Fourth-graders scored an average of 529 on the math evaluation (versus 518 in 1995). Eighth-graders scored 508 (compared with 492 in 1995). The scale average was 500.

According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the math results were encouraging in some ways. "On average, American fourth graders scored above the international average in all content areas in 2007. They outscored their international peers in number, geometric shapes and measures, and data display by 22 to 43 points," NCTM said in a statement released Tuesday. "American fourth graders, on average, scored higher than the average international fourth grader in knowing, applying, and reasoning, with scores between 23 and 41 points higher than their international peers."

However, NCTM did acknowledge that socioeconomic background was a factor in the results.

"The results demonstrate an unacceptable disparity that must be closed if the United States is to remain competitive in a global marketplace," said Hank Kepner, NCTM president, in a statement released by the organization Tuesday. "The facts show that students in the highest poverty schools scored below the international average in both fourth and eighth grades. We need to give all students--not just students in affluent schools--the opportunity to experience challenging mathematics throughout their educational experience."

In fact, there was a direct correlation between poverty levels and assessment scores. As seen in the figure below, scores from students in public schools decreased along a fairly steady slope as the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches increased.

Ethnicity was also a factor. In the United States, white and Asian students on average scored higher than the international average; Hispanic students scored average; and black students scored below the international average. Asian-American students outperformed white students at both grade levels.

Among fourth-graders in math, the top-five countries (or special administrative regions) were Hong Kong (with a 607 average math score), Singapore (599), Taiwan (576), Japan (568), and Kazakhstan (549). Among eighth-graders, the top-five were Taiwan (598), the Republic of Korea (597), Singapore (593), Hong Kong (572), and Japan (570).

In science, the picture was a bit more disappointing. Statistically, there was no change in students' science scores between 1995 and 2007. Fourth-graders went down three points to 539 (a 0.55 percent decrease), while eighth-graders went up seven points to 520 (a 1.36 percent increase). What makes these results a bit bleaker is that in about half of the other countries participating, fourth-graders actually showed improvements in their science scores, while, after more than a decade, U.S. students broke even.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issued a statement Tuesday regarding these results:

"The National Science Teachers Association is discouraged by the results of the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Science scores for both fourth and eighth grade students have remained flat since 1995 and scores for minority students are dismal."

NSTA argued that science needs to be given a higher priority and that recruiting and retaining high-quality science teachers and committing to ongoing professional development are critical for the country's future.

"America's global competitiveness will increasingly depend on our ability to better educate our young people in the sciences," NSTA said in its statement. "Over the last ten years numerous reports have told us how stakeholders can and must work together to increase student achievement in science. In spite of these reports, many districts simply do not value science education. Science is being eliminated from many K-6 classrooms. Science teachers, especially at the elementary level, need better quality professional development and more classroom materials.

"We must develop and retain high quality science teachers, especially for high risk schools, by attracting more candidates into teaching and by strengthening teacher education programs. We should not accept these TIMSS scores as the status quo, but instead focus on how we can forge a stronger public commitment from parents, the business community, policymakers, and other stakeholders on the importance of quality science education."

Further information about the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, including complete results, can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics site here or at the international TIMSS site here. The "TIMSS 2007: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context," which included statistics by sex and ethnicity, can be downloaded from the U.S. Department of Education in PDF form here (2,077 KB).

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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