New Math and Science Study Shows Rising Elementary Math Scores, Significant Challenges

Yesterday the National Center for Education Statistics released the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This study assesses math and science at the 4th and 8th grade levels. (Computer science concepts are not tested.) Because the data is presented by NCES (and funded by the U.S. Federal Government) the report is very US-centric. There is a lot of data to sift through, but some of the key takeaways are:


  • 4th grade students showed a statistically significant improvement in math scores between 2007 and 2003 (the last TIMSS testing period)
  • 4th grade students in the U.S. remained measurably behind eight other countries (all in Europe and Asia) in average scores
  • 8th grade students in the U.S. showed no significant changes from 2003, further average scores fell relative to 4th grade performance
  • The U.S. was behind only five other (all asian) countries on 8th grade performance
  • The U.S. had a significantly higher percentage of top performers at the 8th grade, with six percent scoring in the “advanced” category vs. the international median of two percent
  • At both the 4th and 8th grade levels the “achievement gap” between different sub-populations of students changed with everyone doing generally better than 2003. The difference in the average scores between white and black students was smaller, but it grew between asian (who score better) and white students. Black and hispanic students scored lower than TIMSS scale average.
  • Science

  • At both the 4th and 8th grade levels, U.S. students showed no statistically significant improvement or decline in scores relative to 2003.
  • The U.S. remained behind four and eight other countries, respectively, in average science scores at the 4th and 8th grade levels.

TIMSS has been a highly influential study in US education policy debates. Faced with data showing U.S. students were lagging behind some other industrialized countries in science and math, Congress and the Administration created the very controversial No Child Left Behind Act and the less so America COMPETEs Act. Now that there is some measurable improvement in some math scores, proponents NCLB are likely to claim that the act worked. Those opposed to the legislation will likely point to the data that shows there are still significant “achievement gaps” between segments of U.S. population. In the end, much of this debate may be meaningless as the chances of overhauling NCLB next year are fairly slim. Some of the data may help bolster arguments that have been circling around Washington D.C., including by President-Elect Obama, that a new policy focus on middle schools is needed.