During 1994-1995, half a million eighth grade students from 41 countries sat to take a comprehensive test. The test known as the Third International Mathematics & Science Study (TIMSS) would evaluate and compare the math and science skills of students internationally. In addition to measuring student performance, TIMSS researchers also examined curriculum, textbooks, and classroom instruction. Their goal would be to understand how these factors influence student performance.
In November 1996, the results of the first phase of the study were released with some disappointing numbers for U.S. students. U.S. students did not rank near the top in either math or science skills. They scored below average in math achievement and slightly above average in science achievement. The results of TIMSS sparked a debate in the educational community over the causes of low student achievement.
In Pursuing Excellence: Initial Findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a report released by the Department of Education, researchers discovered that by international standards, U.S. eighth grade students were learning seventh grade mathematics. They suggest that schools revise curriculum to include algebra and geometry instruction at earlier grade levels. Researchers also found a key difference in teaching methods in the U.S. compared to high scoring countries. In the U.S. teachers focus on teaching students how to do something. In higher scoring countries, teachers emphasize not procedures but rather underlying math and science principles.
Educators agree that performance will continue to lag behind other industrialized countries unless the U.S. implements these curriculum changes. In addition, both the National Education Association and the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education suggest improved teacher development. "Practicing teachers need and want ongoing opportunities to renew themselves and to keep up to speed in their field," says Bob Chase, President of the NEA in a statement released regarding the TIMSS results. As TIMSS reveals, teachers in higher scoring countries engaged in more frequent peer assessment and peer review of class instruction.
In addition to professional development programs, the U.S. must establish national goals for math and science education. In statement issued by William Schmidt, U.S. national research coordinator for TIMSS, Schmidt claims that "our nation is atypical among the countries surveyed in its lack of a nationally-defined curriculum. TIMSS study of curricula found that current U.S. standards are unfocused and aimed at the lowest common denominator."
On a positive note, results of the study indicate that homework and classroom discussion time are not factors in poor performance. On average, U.S. teachers assign the same amount of homework and spend the same amount of time in classroom discussion as high achievement countries. Additionally, the U.S. is one of the few countries without a significant gender disparity in math and science scores.
On June 10, 1997, the TIMSS study center will release the results of math and science achievement for third and fourth grade students.
Article by C.M. Gallagher
Copyright © 1997 Education World
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