International study shows select improvements in US math and science


US blacks, Latinos show modest but significant gains at fourth and eighth grades

ARLINGTON, Va.- The United States made some headway against international counterparts in the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which compares mathematics and science performance of fourth- and eighth-grade students.

The study results, released today in Boston and Washington, D.C., showed that the United States continues to score above the international average among TIMSS participants, but remains primarily in the middle of rankings among those nations that are most advanced or nations that have taken part in TIMSS consistently since the study's first assessment in 1995. Forty-six nations participated in the 2003 study.

The 2003 study, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) located at Boston College, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), compared fourth-grade students internationally for the first time since 1995. Eighth-grade students also participated in 1995 and 1999 studies.

Among U.S. eighth-grade students, 2003 scores in mathematics and science continued to improve, although math scores rose less. The U.S. math and science improvements, combined with decreases in average scores for some other nations placed U.S. students in a higher relative standing among its peers than in previous studies.

Fourth-grade, U.S. mathematics and science scores were virtually unchanged between 1995 and 2003. And, improvements made by other nations during that period actually lowered the relative ranking of U.S. students among TIMSS' previous participants.

However, U.S. eighth-grade students made significant gains in mathematics scores, with noticeably better performance in algebra. Black and Latino students in math and science at both fourth and eighth grades made even more progress.

"We're pleased to note the improvements by minority students," said Arden L. Bement, Jr., NSF director. "Having access to quality teaching and challenging material in math and science can only help these students later use their acquired skills to fill opportunities in the workplace where they are most needed for the benefit of the nation.

"Previous TIMSS studies showing declining mathematics performance in middle schools seems to have engendered a response by U.S. school systems, because we now rank among the top three countries in the amount of time devoted to teaching algebra in eighth grade," Bement said. "It indicates that when concentrated attention is brought to bear on a national education problem, our school systems have the capacity to take action and get positive results."

TIMSS is considered a good tool for assessing achievement over time because it looks closely at the curricula of the participating nations, and all countries are required to draw random samples representing students and schools to participate in the study, say NSF program officials.

Some of the key findings of the 2003 TIMSS report for U.S. students in mathematics were:

The United States maintained the same math score level among fourth-grade students as in 1995, which was above the international average but still in the middle of the group of nations that also participated in the 1995 TIMSS. The increased score in mathematics by U.S. eighth-grade students was greater from 1995 to 1999 than it was from 1999 to 2003, although during the 2003 TIMSS, eighth-graders showed significant improvement in performing algebra-related items. Eighth-grade black and Latino students continued to improve their scores in mathematics between 1995 and 2003, with blacks having the most significant increase between 1995 and 1999. Latinos continued a steadier climb throughout the eight-year period. Some of the key findings for TIMSS 2003 in science included:

U.S. fourth-grade students were still scoring much higher than the international average in science, and remained fifth among 15 countries that participated in both 1995 and 2003. Among U.S. students, blacks showed the most improvement. Eighth-grade U.S. science students not only continued to raise their overall science scores, but raised their standing among the 21 countries that participated in TIMSS in both 1995 and 2003. U.S. scoring gains from 1999 to 2003 were especially strong. Both eighth-grade black and Latino students increased their science scores significantly in 2003, continuing steady improvement that was also noted from 1995 to 1999. Boys and girls overall also showed modest gains between 1999 and 2003. U.S. students continue to score higher in life, earth and environmental sciences than in physics and chemistry. "We should be concerned about U.S. performance in chemistry and physics, which are critical parts of basic science," said Don Thompson, NSF's deputy assistant director for education and human resources. "But overall, TIMSS bodes well for our education system. It shows we can achieve great things when we place emphasis on and dedication to specific areas of learning. When we cast the net wider to include underrepresented minority students and others with less opportunity, we find their capacity and motivation to learn, achieve and contribute to society is strong."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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