Tiny TIMSS

Like a comet, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study comes around every four years to offer insights about America's progress (or lack thereof) in these two critical domains. And, as others have noticed too, these exams serve not just as tests of children's skills and nation's self-images but also as Rorschach Tests of policy pundits' views. Hate No Child Left Behind? You can find data in TIMSS that "prove" this law is maligning the nation's schools. Love NCLB? No problem. Plenty of evidence supports your point of view, too. Think we're falling behind in the global competitiveness arena? There's something for you in there. How about we're doing OK in preparing for the world economy? Got it.

Weary from reading the bushel of cherry-picked translations, we were perked up by a simple and straightforward statement from Brookings Institution scholar (and TIMSS advisor) Tom Loveless. Referring to TIMSS, NAEP, etc., he told the Associated Press, "Now all of our major tests are telling us the same things." That's right--and significant--because replicated findings on multiple assessments are the ones that should hold the most sway. So what do we know, not just from TIMSS but also from NAEP?

Math performance is up since the mid-1990s. Progress was particularly strong around the turn of the century, but has continued (at a slower pace) through the NCLB years. Achievement gaps are narrowing, as the lowest-performing students make big gains and the top students make smaller gains or stagnate (though the picture changes somewhat by subject). But we're not seeing much progress in science; in fact, on TIMSS, average science achievement in fourth grade dipped during the past decade. (TIMSS doesn't address reading; for that you must await its cousin PIRLS, the next round of which is coming in 2011.)

Yes, it's true that these findings line up with some policy points that we at Fordham have been making. (We like to think that it's because we follow the data wherever they go, not because we like Maraschinos or Bings just as much as the other guys). But there it is: a subject that gets counted under No Child Left Behind (math) sees progress while a subject that doesn't (science) falls behind. And yes, we suspect that's because elementary schools are spending more time on math and less time on science, depressing learning in the latter. (You can read more about that here and here, keeping in mind that these decreases are associated with recent moves toward accountability in general, not just NCLB.)

But hear this: The United States is not alone in skimping on instructional time in science. TIMSS survey data show that countries spend, on average, 18 percent of their total instructional time teaching math in grade 4; that number is cut in half--to 9 percent--when it comes to teaching science.

Then there's the matter of differential gains among low- and high-achieving students in these subjects. The new results show that our lowest math performers are gaining ground with each successive TIMSS administration (especially in 4th grade). This time we also see growth in top-performing 4th graders in math, though less than their low-performing peers. Another striking data point shows significant gains by in both groups at grade 4 since just four years ago, when NCLB was firmly in place (8th grade, however, hasn't seen much movement since 2003). Now read this recent Loveless/Fordham study on high- and low- achievers' performance on NAEP and you'll see some of these same patterns.

Turning to science, the picture is gloomier. Neither our low nor high performers in grades 4 or 8 posted significant gains since the last TIMSS administration. Even worse, there's a decline in science by high achievers in both grades since the 1990s. And again, though low achievers in 8th grade science saw good gains in the 1990s, it's leveled off of late. So, while we see many of our low and high achievers doing better in math, neither group is up for a gold star in science.

Perhaps the most interesting lessons from TIMSS (or NAEP) can be gleaned from countries and states that are making particularly impressive gains. This study offers several. Massachusetts and Minnesota each participated as "nations," and each received news worth crowing about. The Bay State's eighth graders tied for the highest score with four top Asian countries (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and Korea) in science; its fourth graders had the second highest scores (outperformed only by Singapore). We already knew that Massachusetts was the highest-performing U.S. state; this latest news should give pause to anyone thinking about tinkering with its decades-old standards and education reform strategy.

Equally impressive were the gains posted by Minnesota. Governors: take note. These 4th grade math students made nearly three times the progress of the country as a whole after the state adopted a rigorous curriculum designed by Michigan State scholar Bill Schmidt and benchmarked against the best countries in the world (and under the direction of former Minnesota State Education Secretary Cheri Yecke).

And then there's England. The Queen's fourth graders made a 57-point jump from 1995 to 2007--five times the gains of American students. And you wonder why Sir Michael Barber, a leading architect of the UK's reforms, is in such high demand?

This information is incredibly valuable--and validates many of the reform efforts underway. Let's hope that it inspires policymakers to ask good questions, such as: When and how are we going to give science its due? How can we accelerate our students' progress in mathematics? How can we maintain the gains among low-achievers while kick-starting gains among high-achievers? What can we learn from high-flying Massachusetts and Minnesota? And how can we make sure that all subjects in the core curriculum get the attention that they deserve?

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