The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was designed explicitly to enable educators and policy makers to compare achievement in science and mathematics of students in the United States with those in other countries at three levels of education, grades 4, 8, and the final year of secondary school (grade 12 in the U.S.). With this publication of the results of the 1995 assessment of the final year of secondary school, TIMSS has been successful. In addition, differences in student learning and characteristics of schooling, as measured by the TIMSS assessment instruments and questionnaires, enhance our understanding of the possible influences of such factors as school organization, teaching practices, student study habits, and family background. But the secrets of raising the level of student achievement beyond their current levels are not readily uncovered, and this study provides no easy answers or quick fixes.

The results of students in the final year of secondary school in the TIMSS science and mathematics general knowledge assessments found that our students performed less well than they did at grade 8, significantly below the international mean. In addition, U.S. most advanced students (those taking pre-calculus or calculus and those taking physics) performed at low levels in advanced mathematics and at especially low levels in physics when compared with similar students in other countries.

Once the results for all grades are considered, we see that U.S. students in the early school years have reasonable levels of achievement when compared with other countries--in science they are actually rated near the top--but performance lags by grade 8 and becomes even poorer at grade 12. The report's new information about advanced students should be reviewed carefully by college and university policy makers as well as those who influence coursetaking and career decisions made during the high school years.

Results of the advanced mathematics test reveal some unexpected weaknesses. Despite the fact that about one-quarter of the test related to calculus and that one-half of the U.S. advanced mathematics students were actually studying calculus, it was in geometry, not calculus, where U.S. students performed worst. This is consistent with performance in grades 4 and 8, but unexpected because these advanced students have all had formal geometry coursework. The results show that both geometry and algebra need to be key subjects of study throughout the curriculum.

For me, as a physicist with a keen interest in education, the science results are even more troubling. Students performed poorly in most sub-areas of physics, with the poorest performance coming on items on mechanics and electricity/magnetism (areas that account for about 75 percent of American physics textbooks). Even students who took an Advanced Placement physics course scored below the international norm.

These studies suggest that students appear to disengage from learning critical mathematics and science content as they progress through the school system. The sources of disengagement may include the classroom environment, the quality of instruction, and parental and community support for the value of science and mathematics to our children's future.

Improving achievement in mathematics and science subjects, whether in basic skills or advanced critical thinking, will require that students have, in combination, access to good teachers, good teaching materials, and agreement within the school on the goals of learning for all students. There are many efforts underway in states and localities throughout the United States to reform the process of teaching and learning mathematics and science. They are beginning to reveal mechanisms for obtaining gains in achievement. TIMSS also provides us with examples of nations with high performance at all grade levels, most notably Canada, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. American educators need to examine these successful efforts, learn from them, and effectively use all available resources to improve teaching and learning in mathematics and science at all grade levels.

Neil Lane signature

Neal Lane, Director
National Science Foundation
February 1998


Dr. Neal Lane
Director, National Science Foundation
October 15, 1996

On Release of the Curriculum Analysis Aspect

of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study

Today we release a report entitled A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education, the culmination of years of international curriculum comparisons. This study compares how the U.S. and other countries organize their elementary and secondary math and science curriculums.

Although other NSF reports released in the past year have pointed to encouraging improvements in student achievement, today's announcement reminds us again that the struggle to prepare our students for the 21st century is far from over. This investigation of schooling in 50 countries does not measure student achievement. But the findings do indicate that because U.S. science and math teachers are expected to teach a wide range of subjects, they seldom have the time to teach any in depth. Teachers in other countries, however, are expected to teach a relatively narrow range of subjects and thus have more time to go into more depth. Compared to their colleagues overseas, moreover, U.S. teachers are in the classroom more frequently, leaving them with far less time to prepare their lessons.

The findings also indicate that, in contrast to the U.S., other nations strongly emphasize quality science and math education for every student rather for an elite few. This philosophy -- coupled with a strong emphasis on inquiry-based, "hands on" learning -- is a hallmark of science and math education programs supported by the National Science Foundation.

This study addresses the most important investment any nation can make: the preparation of future generations for a fast-changing world. A strong foundation in science and mathematics is not a luxury; it is a necessity. More and more jobs demand competence in these areas. The knowledge- and technology-based economy of the next century will place a high premium on science literacy and mathematics skills. America needs a scientifically and technologically literate workforce in order to compete in the global marketplace; and all American students need a sound education in science and mathematics in order to compete in an increasingly demanding workplace.

Our future success as a nation rests on the shoulders of today's students. In the 21st century, knowledge will be the most valuable commodity; and knowledge of science and mathematics will be the gold standard. Knowledge may be intangible, but it is not cheap. It requires a sustained investment and an unwavering commitment. The National Science Foundation remains committed to reform of mathematics and science education at every level, in every location, and for every student.










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A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley
Press Conference on 12th-Grade
TIMSS Results
February 23, 1998

Thank you Pat. Good morning. These are very important results from the Third International Math and Science Study concerning our nation's 12th graders. These results are entirely unacceptable, and absolutely confirm our need to raise our standards of achievement, testing, and teaching, especially in our middle and high schools --and to get more serious about taking math and science courses.

Let me outline five basic steps we need to take. First, we need to build a firm foundation for our students during the middle school years; second, state assessments and standards must be raised; third, we must expect more high school students to take four years of math and science, including physics, chemistry, trigonometry, and calculus; fourth, more teachers must be prepared to teach these subjects; and fifth, as a nation we must make sure that all students --not just the elite or the brightest --understand the importance of math and science in their lives.

I am confident that Americans -- and American students -- have the ability to be competitive with the best students in the world. Consider, for example, the most recent TIMSS measurement of U.S. 4th graders. It showed that our students are well above the international average in mathematics and very near the top in achievement in science. This and other assessments show that we are making progress. Unfortunately, we are not gaining fast enough -- and the rest of the world is not standing still.

We give our children a good foundation in the basics. Unfortunately, math and science education gets "stuck in a rut" in the middle grades. We run in place and then allow the majority of our students to "check out" of rigorous math and science courses in high school.

The U.S. was the only country in TIMSS whose students dropped in ranking from above average performance in mathematics at the fourth grade to slightly below average performance at the eighth grade.

By the 12th grade, our students' standing has fallen even further. We must recognize why the drop-off occurred and act aggressively to fix it.

The first reason, and the real core of the problem, is the low expectations and low standards we have for what our students can and should learn in math and science from 4th to 12th grade. At the 8th grade, for example, many state standards and tests are far less rigorous than national and international standards of excellence.

That is why President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and I have encouraged the development of a voluntary national test in eighth grade mathematics. It would be highly inconsistent to condemn the performance of a sample of U.S. students on this test and then turn around and deny parents and teachers the chance to see how their children would perform individually on a rigorous voluntary national test in math that is linked to TIMSS and NAEP, the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Second, taking the tough courses, including challenging mathematics and science, makes a powerful difference. All students must master the traditional basics of arithmetic early on --and then move on to more challenging courses.

Unfortunately, too many students -- particularly during the middle school and high school years --are not taking the rigorous or advanced courses in mathematics and science. By the 8th grade, less than one quarter of American students have taken algebra, while almost all students in the rest of the developed world by that time have studied the fundamentals of algebra and some geometry. Among our high school students only 25% take physics and 10% take calculus.

What classes students take is so vitally important because it affects all students -- those in public and private schools; across all economic levels; from the highest achieving down to the lowest. A large scale study by the Department confirms that it is the courses students take -- not whether they are taken in public or private schools that make a difference.

The third major reason our success in the early years hasn't continued is that too many math and science teachers are teaching out of field. In 1993-94, 28% of public high school math teachers in the U.S. were teaching without a major or a minor and 55% in physics. It's time we overhaul the recruitment, preparation and ongoing professional development of our science and math teachers.

Fourth, we must purge the view that it is ok to be illiterate in math or science -- that these are subjects only for the elite among us. Across our society, demands for specialized skills requiring mathematics, science and technology are growing. Almost 90 percent of new jobs require more than a high school level of literacy and math skills. We have all heard about the tremendous shortage of Information Technology workers in America.

The major burden in addressing these issues and overcoming the challenge is on local schools, communities, and states. I've seen communities -- a group of 20 school districts near Chicago called the First in the World Consortium, for instance -- that have taken comprehensive and successful steps toward achieving significantly better results.

Their students recently took the TIMSS test and their students placed among the best in the world in 12th grade in both math and science. They did it by involving parents, teachers, students, and entire communities in developing a rigorous curriculum and high quality teaching and testing. Over 70% of their high school seniors have taken advanced math and physics courses. Half took algebra by the eighth grade.

We want to support local communities in these kinds of efforts. That is why President Clinton has developed a number of proposals to raise standards and achievement in math and science. His most recent budget proposal includes a $60 million request to Congress to fund an Action Strategy -- coordinated by my Department and the National Science Foundation -- to strengthen the teaching of mathematics in middle schools.

The President also has proposed $350 million over five years to help local communities get qualified teachers into every classroom, with a special emphasis on math and reading. And his $22 billion school modernization proposal will help upgrade math and science classrooms and laboratories in many overcrowded and outdated schools.

I would add one final thought. Let's put an end to the shortsighted, politicized, and harmful bickering over the teaching and learning of mathematics going on in California and elsewhere across this country. We need less ideology and more geometry; less dogmatism and more trigonometry and physics. Failing to focus on what really helps kids learn is an enormous waste of time and a misdirection of our energies. I am confident that if all students and schools were immersed in rigorous teaching and learning environments we would be in the top tier at all levels.

I challenge local schools, school boards, and communities to take a close, hard look at what your students are learning. I urge you to meet and discuss these results. Take a look at the TIMSS questions and answers, which are readily available for your review on the Internet and elsewhere. They are challenging questions.

I hope local communities will compare their tests against national and international standards. Determine what is needed in their districts and schools. And then institute more challenging classes and more rigorous teaching.

This is indeed a great challenge -- but one that befits a great nation. Thank you so much.






Media Contacts: Karen Twigg, 517-355-2281

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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?"


From: AIP listserver <[email protected]>

To: [email protected]

Subject: FYI #35 - Math/Science Education Study


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

Number 35: February 27, 1998

U.S. 12th-Graders Perform Poorly on International Math & Science Study

"These studies suggest that students appear to disengage from learning critical mathematics and science content as they progress through the school system." --NSF Director Neal Lane

From scoring comfortably above the international average in math and science at the fourth-grade level, U.S. students drop to about average by eighth grade, and by twelfth grade they outperform only two other participating countries in general math and science knowledge. These are the initial findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), billed as the "largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous international study of schools and student achievement ever conducted."

The TIMSS assessment was given to a half-million students - in fourth grade, eighth grade, and at the end of their secondary education - in 1995. The data gathered was analyzed and presented by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in three reports. The first provided results on eighth-graders (see FYI #159, 1996), the second discussed fourth-graders (see FYI #84, 1997), and the most recent report, released on February 24, looks at the results for students in their last year of secondary school.

"Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context" compares the performance of U.S. twelfth-graders to students completing secondary school in 20 other countries in the areas of general math and science knowledge, and to 15 other countries in advanced mathematics and physics. Asian nations, many of which participated in the fourth- and eighth-grade TIMSS studies, did not participate at this grade level.

The dramatic results are: U.S. twelfth-graders performed among the lowest of 21 countries on the assessment of mathematical and scientific general knowledge. In math, U.S. students were outperformed by those in 14 other countries, had similar scores to students in four countries, and performed better than students in only two countries, Cyprus and South Africa. In science, U.S. students were outperformed by students in 11 countries, performed similarly to those in seven countries, and again outperformed only students in Cyprus and South Africa. The U.S.'s lower relative ranking in general math (worse than 14 countries and similar to four) than in general science (worse than 11 countries and similar to 7) continues the same pattern found in both the fourth- and eighth-grade assessments. The U.S. was one of 3 countries that did not demonstrate a significant gender gap in general math. Although all the participating nations except South Africa showed a gender gap in science, favoring males, the U.S. had one of the smallest differences between male and female achievement.

The TIMSS questions were designed to assess "how well students had acquired the mathematical and scientific skills and knowledge judged by an international committee of experts to be necessary for all citizens in their daily life," and were "given to a random sample of all students at whatever grade their nation or program of studies set as the end of their secondary schooling, regardless of whether or not they were currently taking mathematics or science at the time of the study."

A subset of advanced students, from fewer countries, also participated in a comparison of higher-level mathematics and physics. The advanced mathematics assessment included the categories of calculus; numbers, equations and functions; and geometry. In a comparison of achievement among 16 nations, U.S. twelfth-grade students were bested by students in 11 countries, and did not perform better than a single country. Among the content areas, U.S. students were relatively weakest in geometry. Eight countries, including the U.S., showed a significant gender gap, favoring males, in all three content areas.

The physics categories included mechanics; electricity and magnetism; particle, quantum, and modern physics; heat; and wave phenomena. U.S. students again did not outperform any of the 15 other countries, and 14 of them outperformed the U.S. While among the lowest performers in all five content areas, U.S. students performed relatively most poorly in mechanics, and electricity and magnetism. In all the participating nations except Latvia, males outperformed females in physics. For U.S. students, this gender gap existed in all of the content areas except heat.

The report also looks for factors in the students' schooling and lives that might account for differing achievement levels, focusing specifically on the general math results. For example, it finds that the proportion of graduating students currently

taking mathematics or science was lower in the United States than the average for all participating countries. U.S. twelfth-graders spent fewer hours per day studying or doing homework than the international average; more of those U.S. twelfth-graders worked at paid jobs, and worked longer hours, than did students in any other TIMSS nation. Students in the U.S. spent the same amount of time watching TV and videos as the international average. The report concludes that while there may be differences across countries, "few appear to be systematically related to our performance in twelfth grade compared to the other countries participating in TIMSS."

An initial analysis of the data highlights two factors that appear to affect performance: For some students, the last year of secondary school was not necessarily twelfth grade; average student age and number of years of schooling varied from country to country. Additionally, in both math and science, the content covered by the TIMSS study was introduced later in the U.S. curriculum, on average, than in the other countries as a whole.

Officials present for the release of the new report urged continued efforts at education reform. Remarking that "the fourth-grade results were more favorable," NSF Director Neal Lane said "I believe there is a connection between those results and the initiation in the early 1990s of math and science education reform efforts in states and localities across the country.... The majority of twelfth-graders tested in 1995 - the results of which we see today - would not have been exposed to those reform interventions." He noted that President Clinton's FY 1999 budget request includes a $60 million initiative "to improve science and mathematics generally and middle-school math in particular." Education Secretary Richard Riley added, "We give our children a good foundation in the basics. Unfortunately, math and science education gets stuck in a rut' in the middle grades. We run in place and then allow the majority of our students to check out' of rigorous math and science courses in high school."

The three reports from the TIMSS study are available on the Internet at


Audrey T. Leath

Public Information Division

The American Institute of Physics