Average U.S. students perform at the basic level in both mathematics and science, but generally equal or outperform students in other parts of the world
Washington, D.C. - When U.S. performance standards are used to measure the mathematics and science skills of 8th graders around the world, students in the United States substantially trail their counterparts in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Hong Kong but generally are equal to or outperform students in other parts of the World, according to a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
The AIR study for the first time uses the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - known as the nation's "report card" - to measure how U.S. students compare in mathematics and science with students in foreign countries, based on data in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The analysis statistically linked the NAEP achievement levels to the TIMSS scale. This then provided estimates of how countries outside the United States that participated in the TIMSS would perform using the NAEP achievement levels.
"This study provides a familiar metric with which to interpret international data by using U.S. performance standards," said Dr. Gary W. Phillips, author of the study and a chief scientist at AIR. He served as the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education from 1999 - 2002. "It is a lot like trying to interpret international poverty data by first converting all currencies to dollars, then applying a U.S. definition of poverty."
"The results have important implications for policymakers because they pertain to efforts to improve U.S. achievement in mathematics and science. They shed additional light on comparisons between the United States and other countries and provide a useful application of NAEP achievement levels," said Phillips, who is nationally and internationally known for his expertise in large-scale assessments and complex surveys.
The performance categories follow the NAEP definitions: basic, denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for work at a given grade; proficient, represents solid academic performance; and advanced, signifies superior performance.
Based on the reanalysis of the latest 2003 TIMSS in mathematics, the AIR study found that 67 percent of U.S. students performed at the basic level or better, 26 percent were proficient or above and five percent were at the advanced level. Five countries performed significantly better than the United States. Each of the five countries had more than twice the percentage of estimated proficient students as the United States - Singapore; Hong Kong, SAR; Republic of Korea; Chinese Taipei; and Japan. They also had more than four times the percentage of advanced students. On the other hand, 19 countries' students performed significantly lower than those in the United States. Four nations had no one in the TIMSS assessment functioning at the proficient level. These nations were Botswana, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa.
Similar results were found in the AIR reanalysis of the 2003 TIMSS in science. The linking study found that 66 percent of U.S. students performed at the basic level or above, 31 percent at the proficient level or better and four percent at the advanced level. Two countries had a significantly higher percentage of estimated proficient students than the United States - Singapore and Chinese Taipei - and 25 countries had significantly lower percentages of proficient students than in the United States.
Overall, the average U.S. student performs at the basic level in both mathematics and science, as do their counterparts in most English speaking and European countries.
"Looked at from the perspective of NAEP achievement levels, TIMSS results are more understandable," said Dr. Phillips. "For example, if a nation's average student reaches the proficient level that indicates the country has world class educational achievement in mathematics or science. Interpreted this way we find that the United States is a nation that is not meeting its own expectations."
Other findings include:
Only Singapore and Chinese Taipei have students whose average performance in science falls at the proficient level.
In mathematics, Singapore; Republic of Korea; Hong Kong, SAR; Chinese Taipei; and Japan have students whose average performance falls at the proficient level.
AIR, established in 1946 with headquarters in Washington, D.C., is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research on important social issues and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity.