Washington, D.C. - Despite a widely held belief that U.S. students do well in mathematics in grade school but decline precipitously in high school, a new study comparing the math skills of students in industrialized nations finds that U.S. students in 4th and 8th grade perform consistently below most of their peers around the world and continue that trend into high school.
The study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) under funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education, reexamined data from three international surveys assessing mathematics achievement in 2003 – the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assessed students in grades 4 and 8, and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assessed 15-year-olds, most of whom were in 10th grade.
The study, “Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance: New Findings from the 2003 TIMSS and PISA,” focused on students in the United States and 11 other industrial countries that participated in all three assessments: Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the Russian Federation.
U.S. students consistently performed below average, ranking 8th or 9th out of twelve at all three grade levels. These findings suggest that U.S. reform proposals to strengthen mathematics instruction in the upper grades should be expanded to include improving U.S. mathematics instruction beginning in the primary grades.
“The conventional wisdom is that U.S. students perform above average in grades 4 and 8, and then decline sharply in high school,” says Steven Leinwand, principal research analyst at AIR and one of the report’s authors. “But this study proves the conventional wisdom is dead wrong.”
Previous studies compared U.S. performance with substantially more countries, whose characteristics vary widely. A total of 24 countries participated in TIMSS-grade 4, 45 countries in TIMSS-grade 8, and 40 countries in PISA.
According to widely publicized findings from those studies, U.S. performance was above the international average in grades 4 and 8, but below the international average at age 15, suggesting that the quality of American high schools is inferior to that of elementary and middle schools.
“We believe the narrower focus of this study more accurately reflects the state of education in the United States in relation to a common set of industrialized nations because we are comparing apples to apples,” says Leinwand.
The reanalysis took advantage of the richness of the TIMSS and PISA data sets to present new findings on the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. and other countries’ mathematics performance.
Countries that score well on items that emphasize mathematical reasoning (a higher-level skill) also score well on items that require knowledge of facts and procedures (a lower-level skill), suggesting that reasoning and computation skills are mutually reinforcing in learning mathematics well. Compared to other countries, students in the United States students do not do well on questions at either skill level.
Many countries differ in their strengths and weaknesses among mathematical content areas (numbers, algebra, measurement, geometry, and data and statistics). The United States does relatively better in data and statistics and relatively worse in measurement in grades 4 and 8 and in geometry in grade 8 and at age 15.
Overall differences within countries between boys’ and girls’ mathematics performance are not large, although there is some evidence that the boys’ score advantage is greatest on the more difficult items, especially at age 15. This finding is consistent with some prior gender literature. In addition, the study found that boys in the United States consistently outperform girls in all three assessments, a pattern shared only with Italy, but the differences are small.
“These findings suggest cross-national surveys of educational achievement at different grade levels and ages provide a broader lens than is possible from domestic research alone from which to determine the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. mathematics instruction,” says Alan Ginsburg of the U.S. Department of Education, another of the study’s authors.
Rankings of 12 Countries Participating on the 2003 International Mathematics Assessments: TIMSS Grades 4 and 8, and PISA Age 15
The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is an independent, 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.