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National Center for Education Statistics
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National Science Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Are There Surprises in the TIMSS Twelfth Grade Results?

"There is something surprising about the mathematics and science achievement results for US high school seniors," said Dr. William H. Schmidt in discussing the recently released TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) high school seniors' results. "What is surprising is not the profoundly disappointing results but rather failing to realize how predictable those results were given what we already knew. The mathematics and science performance of American high school seniors is neither unexpected nor unimportant."

TIMSS released achievement results comparing general mathematics and science knowledge among typical graduating seniors in several countries. They also released results on more advanced, specialized achievement tests for graduating seniors studying physics or calculus (including Advanced Placement courses in one or both of those areas) and their counterparts in other countries.

TIMSS showed very low results for US students compared to those in the other countries giving the tests, both for general knowledge by average graduating seniors and for advanced performance by seniors studying physics and calculus. A recent report, Facing the Consequences, from the US TIMSS Research Center suggested that these results were certainly to be expected. It pointed out that there was a consistent decline in our relative standing from fourth grade to eighth grade in both mathematics and science. Of the almost 40 topics examined in both mathematics and science, none showed improved standing relative to other TIMSS countries from fourth to eighth grade. Most topics showed a decline over the middle school years.

Schmidt said, "It could hardly be a surprise to find this decline continuing on through high school. As we discussed in Facing the Consequences and in our earlier report A Splintered Vision, US curricula through eighth grade do not focus on any key topics or give them significantly more attention. Those curricula and our textbooks are highly repetitive and unchallenging in grade after grade of the middle school years. How could they provide a sound foundation on which to build during the high school years?" The middle school curricula in most TIMSS countries cover topics from algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry. For most US students these are first studied, if at all, in high school. Many students (about 15 percent) never study algebra, geometry (about 30 percent), advanced algebra (40 percent), other advanced mathematics (around 80 percent), chemistry (about 45 percent) or physics (almost 75 percent).

Schmidt indicated, "US students frequently opt out of advanced study of mathematics and science in high school or are placed in less demanding courses even if they do continue to take mathematics and science courses. So high school mathematics and science is unlikely to overcome the poor foundation provided during US middle school education and reverse the downward trend in comparative performance for average students."

The US is also selective about who takes what courses, especially in mathematics. We do this even before high school and are essentially unique among TIMSS countries in doing so. As early as middle school we offer different content to different groups of students. We presumably do this to improve our educational 'efficiency' and increase learning for all students or, at least, for the students in our most demanding courses. It doesn't work. Facing the Consequences used TIMSS results to examine these practices in some detail and found that they did little to help most students learn mathematics. The report also found that this practice contributed to exaggerating achievement differences among US students. The new twelfth grade results make it clear that tracking also fails to provide satisfactory achievement for either average or advanced students.

That report suggests that tracking is not the only problem with the US approach to mathematics and science education. US science and mathematics curricula cover many topics but without devoting much time to any one topic. This makes it unsurprising that there appeared to be only very small differences in what had been learned by US fourth graders compared to third graders or by eighth graders compared to seventh graders. This was true for all mathematics and science topics examined. Schmidt said, "We have characterized US science and mathematics curricula as 'a mile wide and an inch deep.' We can hardly be surprised to find the achievement gains in all of those topics only an 'inch deep' as well."

The US pattern of consistent small gains contrasts sharply with patterns in other TIMSS countries where in any single grade there are large gains for some topics and small gains in others. US high school seniors' performance on the TIMSS tests show that this approach of accumulating consistent small gains in the end does not result in overall gains as large as those attained by focusing on some topics for greater gains but changing the focus across the years of schooling. Schmidt suggested, "Surely these results must call into question the entire US approach to mathematics and science curricula across the grades."

What about the US's better students? When asked, Schmidt replied, "For some time now, Americans have comforted themselves when confronted with bad news about their educational system by believing that our better students can compare with similar students in any country in the world. We have preferred not to believe that we were doing a consistently bad job. Instead, many have believed that the problem was all those 'other' students who do poorly in school and who we, unlike other countries, include in international tests. That simply isn't true. TIMSS has burst another myth - our best students in mathematics and science are simply not 'world class'. Even the very small percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses are not among the world’s best."

US students have been provided with weak foundations for studying advanced mathematics and science.. "Our high school specialists are ill prepared to gain the most from advanced study", Schmidt said. "A few grades of weak specialization in high school does not appear able to overcome the weak foundation we lay in earlier grades."

How mathematics and science is arranged in courses also seems to be part of the problem. Better US students study physics in only one or two courses. This is very different from what the students study in the higher achieving countries where physics study begins during middle school and continues throughout high school. Better US mathematics students during high school years take separate courses in geometry, pre-calculus, etc. In most TIMSS countries, students take a course in mathematics -- a course which may include studying parts of advanced algebra, geometry, finite mathematics, and calculus at the same time. They may take such courses for several years.

"What these results for US high school seniors make clear and what we tried to examine closely in Facing the Consequences," Schmidt said, "is that there is no one source of these problems and no one source for their solution. The problem is bigger. It is in our system, not any single part of it. We can waste our time protesting each and every change. We can also waste our time thinking that any one change will solve all our problems. In either case, what we do is waste our time. US mathematics and science education has neither simple villains nor 'magic bullets' to cure our ills. We've failed our tests. Do we want to fail our futures, too?"