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U.S. Students Earn Average Scores in Global Study

April 1997

In an international examination of math and science skills, U.S. eighth-graders finished in the middle of the pack.

In the second part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), researchers compared the work of half a million 12- and 13-year-olds from 41 countries. The report, Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Teaching, Learning, Curriculum and Achievement in International Context, shows that American students tested above average in science and below average in mathematics.

Led by William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University, the TIMSS team of analysts addressed questions of math and science education at two levels. First, they compared the participating countries' eighth-grade math and science curricula and teaching techniques (See Frontiers, February 1997).

Second, the team measured the math and science skills through achievement tests, performance assessments, and in-depth surveys of student and teacher attitudes, backgrounds, and experiences. The first assessment, a study of eighth-graders, was released in November 1996. More grade-level studies will follow.

Schmidt says the results show that Americans didn't perform as poorly "as some people might expect, but not as well as we can and should achieve. "

NSF Director Neal Lane adds that this level of achievement is not acceptable in light of what the United States hopes to accomplish. "What the data tell us is that, given the kinds of activities and learning that commonly take place in most American classrooms, without substantial changes, the United States is unlikely to achieve its national educational goal of becoming first in the world in math and science. We simply cannot afford to fail to meet that challenge. "

In a country-to-country comparison, U.S. scores were on a par with those from Germany and the United Kingdom, while Japan scored significantly higher in both fields.

The study, co-sponsored by NSF and the U.S. Department of Education, also found significant differences in teaching styles and expectations.

Algebra and geometry are studied by most eighth-graders around the world, but in the United States, the topics are studied mostly by the higher-level classes. These classes encompass only about 13% of the eighth-graders.

U.S. math teachers show students how to solve problems. Japanese math teachers help students understand math concepts.

Japanese teachers are more successful than U.S. teachers in implementing reforms in mathematical curricula and teaching style.

A copy of this report is available on the World Wide Web: http://ustimss.msu.edu.


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