Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, on the release of 2007 TIMSS data

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Publication date: 
December 9 2008 (All day)

WASHINGTON (December 9, 2008) – American students do reasonably well when compared to students in the total pool of countries participating in the just released TIMSS. However—and despite some encouraging progress over the past several years—when the mathematics and science skills of our fourth and eighth-graders are compared to those of their peers in the 16 countries classified by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as advanced economies, the picture dims, and our students’ performance falls squarely to the middle of the pack among those nations.

Americans have never thought of ourselves as part of the mediocre middle, and now is hardly the time to get comfortable with that status—not when our future, collectively and individually, depends so heavily on high-level skills in mathematics and the sciences. Moreover, the slight improvement in fourth and eighth-grade performance on TIMSS should not be allowed to obscure the more sobering U.S. scores on PISA, the other international test of mathematics and science skills. The disappointing performance of our tenth graders on the most recent administration of PISA only underscores the need for increased attention to mathematics and science education.

If we are to rebuild our national prosperity and safeguard the values that we’ve long cherished, then we have little choice but to commit ourselves immediately and urgently to the goal of closing the international achievement gaps that separate our students from those in other nations. We cannot close these gaps by rationing our educational resources and investing only in the fortunate few. Instead, we must dramatically and broadly change the ways in which we educate our students such that each student has a fair shot at academic excellence.

Our eighth-graders' mathematics scores demonstrate the value of strategies that join excellence with equity. Eighth-grade math reflected our greatest TIMSS increase—16 points between 1995 and 2007. With this gain, we overtook Sweden and Norway for seventh place among advanced economies. This improved performance, though by no means satisfactory, occurred as we ever so slightly narrowed the performance gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools within the U.S. and as we made important and steady progress narrowing Black-White and Latino-White gaps within the U.S. Further, the gap between our highest and lowest-performing students in eighth-grade math is among the smallest of the IMF countries. Put simply, we narrowed the international gap as we reduced the domestic gaps.

On the other hand, our fourth-grade science scores dipped by 3 points between 1995 and 2007. In 1995, Singapore, Hong Kong, Latvia, Hungary, and England all lagged behind the United States in fourth-grade science, but by 2007 Latvia, Hungary, and England had pulled even, while Singapore and Hong Kong had surpassed us. Over this same time period we saw uneven progress in the U.S. in narrowing gaps by race and ethnicity and widening gaps between our high and low-poverty schools. The performance gap between our highest and lowest-performing students in fourth-grade science is among the largest in the TIMSS. In other words, we lost ground internationally in the same subject area in which lost ground domestically. 

Despite data such as this, which strongly suggest that we “do well by doing right,” some still argue that the stakes for our nation in mathematics achievement are so high that we should only focus our efforts and resources on those students most likely to excel. Doing so, however, would undermine the belief that all students deserve a fair chance to succeed; it would also vastly limit the talent pool from which this nation can draw its next generation of innovators and leaders. The story of eighth-grade math is worth examining here, too. Eighth-grade math is the area in which we made the greatest progress, yet only 6 percent of our eight-graders scored at the advanced level. This compares poorly to the 45% of eighth-graders in Taiwan and the 40% in Singapore and South Korea who scored at the advanced level.

If our nation is going to not just survive, but thrive, in this new, more complex and more challenging century, we must grow our talent pool deeper and wider. To do so we must ensure that each and every student has the teachers, the courses, and the support that they need to excel academically.