Mixed Results for U.S. Students in International Comparisons

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Publication date: 
17 December 2004

The results of the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released on December 14, 2004. U.S. students continue to score significantly above the international averages in both math and science. The results suggest that U.S. eighth-graders have made strides in both subjects over the last eight years, but that U.S. fourth-graders' performance has stagnated. In another international comparison, U.S. 15-year-olds did not measure up to the international average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving skills.

The TIMSS assessments are carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) (http://www.iea.nl/iea/hq/), and the first assessment was conducted in 1995. Follow-up studies are conducted every four years, providing an ongoing source of international comparison. The 2003 assessment tested fourth- and eighth-graders in mathematics and science. More than 360,000 students in 49 countries participated in the 2003 study. Students from Singapore outperformed students from all other countries in both math and science, at both grade levels.


Forty-five countries participated in the assessments at the eighth-grade level.

The results indicate that U.S. eighth-graders scored better in both science and math than in previous assessments. Gains in math occurred primarily between 1995 and 1999, with the greatest gains in science occurring between 1999 and 2003. The results also suggest that, since 1995, U.S. eighth-graders have improved their performance in science and math relative to eighth-graders in the other participating countries.

In science, U.S. eighth-graders were outperformed by eighth-grade students in the following eight countries: Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong SAR, Estonia, Japan, Hungary, and Netherlands.

In math, U.S. eighth-graders were outperformed by their peers in 14 countries: Singapore, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong SAR, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Belgium, Netherlands, Estonia, Hungary, Malaysia, Latvia, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, and Australia.

Internationally, at the eighth-grade level, gender differences were negligible in math. In science, boys in most countries scored significantly higher than girls, although girls on the whole showed greater improvement since the last TIMSS assessment. Boys generally performed better in physics and earth science, while girls generally scored higher in life science.


Twenty-five countries participated in the fourth-grade assessments.

There was no significant change in either the science or math performance of U.S. fourth-graders between 1995 and 2003, and the data indicate that their scores in 2003 were lower than in 1995 relative to students in other participating countries.

In science, U.S. fourth-graders were outperformed by their peers in five countries: Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Hong Kong SAR, and England.

In math, fourth-graders from the U.S. were outperformed by their peers in 11 countries: Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Belgium, Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Russian Federation, England, and Hungary.

Internationally, gender differences among students at the fourth-grade level were negligible in both science and math.


The 2003 assessment also found that, in almost all countries, higher parental education levels were associated with higher student achievement. In general, high student achievement was also positively associated with speaking the language of the test at home, the number of books in the home, computer use, school safety, and low numbers of economically-disadvantaged students in a school.


Another international comparison of students showed U.S. 15-year-olds performing below the international average of participating countries in an assessment of mathematical literacy and problem-solving. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is organized under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (see http://www.oecd.org/home/). Students from both OECD and non-OECD nations participated in the PISA study, which assesses reading literacy, math literacy, science literacy, and skills such as problem-solving every three years. One or more subject areas are chosen each time for in-depth measurement, with mathematics literacy and problem-solving targeted in the 2003 assessment.

The 2003 PISA results were released on December 6. Of the 41 nations that participated in this assessment, U.S. 15-year-olds were outperformed by students in 23 other nations in math literacy, and by students in 25 other nations in problem-solving. Students from the U.S. scored below the average for OECD countries on each component of math literacy (space and shape, change and relationships, quantity, and uncertainty). They performed at the OECD average in reading literacy and below the OECD average in science literacy. In math literacy, boys outperformed girls in the U.S. and in two-thirds of the participating nations. However, there was no significant gender difference in problem-solving.

"The PISA results are a blinking warning light," Education Secretary Rod Paige said in a press release. "It's more evidence that high standards and accountability for results are a good idea for all schools at all grade levels."

Highlights of the TIMSS and PISA studies are available at http://nces.ed.gov.

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