Highlights from TIMSS 2007: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context

Suzannah Herrmann, Ph.D.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007 results were released Tuesday (see here) and they show American kids are making progress against their international peers. TIMSS is a rigorous international comparison of fourth- and eighth-grade students' math and science test scores across countries. Worth noting: our scores are not bad in comparison to underdeveloped countries, but there's plenty of room for improvement when matched against developed countries in Asia and Europe.

For math, the report reveals that:

  • The average math scores of US fourth graders and eighth graders are higher than the average across countries.
  • U.S. fourth-grade math scores are higher than in 23 countries (out of 36), but still lower than test scores in eight countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, England, Latvia), and not different from 4 countries (Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany, and Denmark).
  • U.S. eighth-grade math scores are higher than test scores in 37 countries (out of 48), but lower than test scores in five countries (Chinese Taipei, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong), and not different from five other countries (Hungary, England, Russian Federation, Lithuania, Czech Republic).

For science, the report reveals that:

  • The average science scores for U.S. fourth graders and eighth graders are higher than the average across countries.
  • U.S. fourth-grade science scores are higher than test scores in 25 countries (out of 35), but still lower than test scores in four countries (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan), and not different from six countries (Russia Federation, Latvia, England, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan).
  • U.S. eighth-grade science scores are higher than test scores in 35 countries (out of 47), but lower than test scores in nine countries (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, England, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia), and not different from four other countries (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Lithuania, Australia).

Okay, so the scores aren't so bad compared to other countries. We are beating Australia in fourth-grade math and Germany in fourth-grade science, but we aren't as competitive as the world's other highly developed countries. This is cause for serious concern. The report also tells us that American math and science scores have gone up since 1995, which is good news. This demonstrates that we're working toward improvements (NCLB was implemented in 2002) but points to the idea that scores can still go up. It's worth mentioning that some countries aren't participating in TIMMS (such as Finland) and perhaps the U.S. might be ranked lower if other countries had been included.

Still, there is one real downer to the report. The report tells us that American students aren't reaching the high international benchmarks that enable them to apply their math and science understanding to complicated situations and to explain their reasoning-basically, the types of skills needed for success in the increasingly competitive 21st century global economy.

These findings imply that the U.S. has some serious work to do in strengthening and improving its standards, testing, and accountability systems. The good news here is that we need not look further than Massachusetts for guidance on what works. In eighth-grade math, Massachusetts' score rose 34 points to 547 from eight years ago, compared with a 7-point increase for the United States, which averaged 508. In eighth-grade science, the Bay State's score rose 23 points to 556, compared with a 5-point gain for the United States, which scored 520 (see here).

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