college of education | fall 2001

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Good News / Bad news
TIMSS Data Reinforce Importance of Coherence Curriculum in Mathematics and Science

The latest data released by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study is a classic case of good news/bad news.

The good news for Michigan is that the state’s eighth-grade students who participated in what is known as timss-repeat (timss-r) outscored the 12 other states in the study. The group of Michigan students came from 57 randomly selected schools, including those in urban, suburban, and rural districts.

The strong results by Michigan students drew praise from Gov. John Engler, who announced the findings at a news conference in April.

“This study shows that Michigan’s efforts to improve our schools are paying off,” Engler said. “Michigan eighth- graders lead the nation in math and science scores compared to other states that participated in the study. Even more important, these scores show that schools that have adopted a curriculum that dovetails with state standards do well—regardless of the socioeconomic status of its students.”

The bad news is that neither Michigan nor any of the other states posted strong enough scores to place them among the top nations in the world in mathematics and science. Out of 38 countries in the study, the U.S. as a whole ranked 18th in science and 19th in mathematics.

“There are no world class performances among the participating states,” said University Distinguished Professor William Schmidt, who is executive director of the timss National Research Center based at the college.

The study is designated as timss-r because it tested a new group of eighth-grade students in 1999. timss had first tested eighth-graders in 1995 and found that American students performed poorly. timss-r was a benchmarking study allowing states and school districts to assess their comparative international standing and evaluate their mathematics 

and science programs. In the U.S., 14 school districts or groups of school districts participated in the study.

To Schmidt, the data also show a relationship between the relative wealth of districts and students’ achievement in the subject areas.

“The relatively poor comparative performance of U.S. eighth graders is the story for the participating states,” Schmidt said. “Nationally, this is related to a middle-school curriculum that is not coherent, and is not as demanding as that found in other countries we studied. U.S. eighth-grade students study arithmetic, for example, but the children in the top-achieving countries study algebra and geometry.

“Clearly we need national leadership from the state level aimed at developing a demanding, coherent national consensus of what is important for U.S. students to know in mathematics and science. The results imply that the problem is national in scope and is not likely to be addressed on a state-by-state basis.”

The greater achievement among wealthier districts, he said, also points to the need for a national consensus. timss-r found that one district in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago (Naperville School District #203) outperformed all other nations in the study in science.

“There was enormous variation in the performance of students across the 14 districts. Students in urban settings performed far worse than the United States as a whole and radically different from students in suburban settings,” Schmidt said. “The results seem to intimate that it is also a matter of system differences and not only individual ability and family background.

“The data indicate a strong relationship between what students in districts are taught in mathematics and measures of the wealth and social class of those districts or consortia. Those that ‘have,’ get more.”

Schmidt explained that there is a substantially greater opportunity for students in wealthier districts to be in mathematics classes focusing on algebra instead of repeating the same arithmetic studied from first grade and on.

Two timss-r findings illustrate Schmidt’s argument.

In Illinois, 39 percent of the students were in classes where the mathematics curriculum focused mainly on arithmetic. By comparison, only nine percent of the students were in such classes for the 23 countries that participated in both the 1995 and 1999 timss study.

Furthermore, almost half of the students in Chicago were in arithmetic-oriented classes. In the Naperville school district, only four percent were in arithmetic classes. “The variation within Illinois was tremendous and the overall average for the state reflected the preponderance of urban students,” Schmidt said.

For Schmidt, Michigan is a positive ray of hope. In Michigan, only about one fourth of the eighth graders were in arithmetic-oriented classes. In addition, a set of schools that participated in the study and which are oriented around principles of coherence and rigor in 

standards and testing had only nine percent of their students in arithmetic-oriented classes.

This set of schools did not differ demographically from the state as a whole. They differed only in the ways in which the curricula and expectations were organized, Schmidt said.

“Can U.S. students do better on these tests than they have so far? There is reason students find greater opportunities and students with greater opportunities usually achieve more. Without national leadership, it would appear that the United States will continue to have only accidental enclaves of excellence.”

The study, supported by the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a collaborative effort between states, districts, and the timss International Study Center at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.

Mathematics Achievement
Michigan  517
Texas 516
Indiana 515
Oregon 514
Massachusetts 513
Connecticut 512
Illinois 509
Pennsylvania 507
South Carolina 502
Idaho 495
Maryland 495
North Carolina 495
Missouri 490
Singapore 604
South Korea 587
Chinese Taipei 585
Hong Kong 582
Japan 579
Belgium 558
Netherlands 540
Slovak Republic 534
Hungary 532
Canada 531
Slovenia 530
Russian Federation 526
Australia 525
Czech Republic 520
Finland 520
Malaysia 519
Bulgaria 511
Latvia 505
United States 502
England 496
New Zealand 491
Lithuania 482
Italy 497
Cyprus 476
Romania 472
Moldova 469
Thailand 467
Israel 466
Tunisia 448
Macedonia 447
Turkey 429
Jordan 428
Iran 422
Indonesia 403
Chile 392
Philippines 645
Morocco 337
South Africa 275
Science Achievement
Michigan  544
Oregon 536
Indiana 534
Massachusetts 533
Connecticut 529
Pennsylvania 529
Ohio 526
Missouri 523
Illinois 521
South Carolina 511
Texas 509
North Carolina 508
Maryland 506
Chinese Taipei 569
Singapore 568
Hungary 552
Japan 550
South Korea 549
Netherlands 545
Australia 540
Czech Republic 539
England 538
Belgium 535
Finland 535
Slovak Republic 535
Canada 533
Slovenia 533
Hong Kong 530
Russian Federation 529
Bulgaria 518
United States 515
New Zealand 510
Latvia 503
Italy 493
Malaysia 492
Lithuania 488
Thailand 482
Romania 472
Israel 468
Cyprus 460
Moldova 459
Macedonia 458
Jordan 450
Iran 448
Indonesia 435
Turkey 433
Tunisia 430
Chile 420
Philippines 345
Morocco 323
South Africa 243

Source: Third International Mathematics and Science Study

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