Third International Mathematics
and Science Study (1995)

For a time in the late 1990's, it seemed as if everyone was using the reported results from TIMSS to rationalize different, sometimes opposing, stances on how American students' performances in mathematics could be improved. This is bewildering for parents and others who are not directly involved in mathematics education. This introduction to TIMSS will quote directly from the materials published by the U.S. Department of Education, and give some links for further factual information. It should be emphasized that the students being tested in TIMSS (1995) came from typical classrooms; none of the students came from CPMP classrooms. However, the findings are relevant to the way that CPMP is designed and intended to be used.

The Results
TIMSS collected data from a half-million students from 42 nations in 1995-96. Students were grouped at three levels, Grade 4, Grade 8, and Grade 12 (or students in their final year of secondary school if the nation did not have a grade 12). The purpose was to compare the mathematics and science achievement in these countries. In addition, there were intensive studies of students, teachers, schools, curricula, instruction, and policy issues to better understand the influence of these factors on the achievement results. Three countries were selected for in-depth studies which were comprised of two parts: videotape analysis of mathematics instruction, intended to allow a comparison of teaching techniques and the quality of instruction; and ethnographic studies, intended to shed light on such topics as education standards, working conditions of teachers, and the role of school in adolescents' lives.

  • At grade 4, U.S. students scored above average,
  • By grade 8, they scored below the average, and
  • By 12th grade, the situation was even worse.
    "When we compare these 12th grade TIMSS results to the previously released fourth and eighth grade results, we see a loss of competitive advantage." (From a 1998 press release by the U.S. Department of Education.) This means that, when comparing the same groups of countries across grades, the relative standing of U.S. eighth graders was lower than that of our fourth graders; and the standing of our 12th graders was lower than that of our eighth graders.

Looking for Reasons
These results caused great consternation among educators, but also provided the impetus to look closely at what we teach, how we teach it and how we assess it. None of the following excuses about unfair comparisons between countries could be considered valid.

  • "TIMSS is not an assessment of other country's best students against our average students, but of the entire range of students in each country.
    While the percentage of young adults who complete secondary school in the U.S. once was significantly larger than the percentage in other countries, this is no longer the case. Today, similar proportions of young people are enrolled at the end of secondary schooling in most of these countries. Since some nations group their students into different types of schools with different graduation requirements, TIMSS assessed students in their last year in all types of schools and programs in all countries. This last grade ranged from the ninth grade in some vocational programs through the 14th grade in other programs.
  • Contrary to myths about U.S. education, our poor performance is not because our student body is more diverse or because we have a lot of low scores pulling down the overall U.S. average.
    Most countries have students from diverse language and cultural groups. It is also true that the other countries in this study have a similar range of performance as the U.S., covering 300 points from the 5th to 95th percentile. However, the entire distribution of U.S. scores both starts and ends lower than in most other nations. This means that the average level of general knowledge in mathematics among students in a majority of these countries matched that of the top quarter of U.S. students. Similarly, a student scoring at the 50th percentile in mathematics in the U.S. would be at about the 25th percentile (or below) in 12 nations. Therefore, we cannot blame our overall low performance on our bottom students; the problem is across the board." (From a 1998 press release by the U.S. Department of Education.)
  • It is more helpful to direct attention to the factors most closely connected to students' performance, the curriculum they experience and the effectiveness of the way that teachers teach the curriculum.
    Below is a summary of some of the findings. You can find more information at nces.ed.gov/timss/.

Curriculum Comparisons
U.S. policy makers are concerned about whether expectations for our students are high enough and, in particular, whether they are as challenging as those of our foreign economic partners. In all countries, the relationships among standards, teaching, and learning are complex. This is especially true in the United States, which is atypical among TIMSS countries in that curriculum is defined at the local, rather than national level.

  • "It appears that U.S. mathematics and science curricula lack the coherence, focus, and rigor of the curricula taught in other countries that participated in TIMSS. Most state curriculum frameworks emphasize breadth over depth.
    Mathematics and science textbooks in the United States were found to be substantially longer than the international average and to express the incoherence, fragmentation, and lack of rigor noted in the U.S. curriculum." (See nces.ed.gov/timss/.)

Teaching Comparisons

  • Japanese teachers widely practice what the international mathematics education research community recommends, while U.S. teachers do so less frequently.
    Although most U.S. mathematics teachers report familiarity with recommendations for teaching practice, only a few apply the key points in their classrooms.
  • "The 8th-grade mathematics videotape classroom study conducted in the United States, Germany, and Japan found American and German lessons, unlike Japanese lessons, to focus primarily on the acquisition and application of skills rather than problem solving and thinking.
    When mathematical concepts are addressed, three-fourths of Japanese and German teachers developed the concepts after introducing them compared to less than one-fifth of American teachers. American teachers tend only to state rather than develop concepts.
  • There was less cohesion in American versus Japanese lessons.
    While 62 percent of Japanese and 21 percent of German 8th-grade mathematics lessons included deductive reasoning, no American lessons did. Lesson plans from each country (with national origin disguised) were judged by an independent group of American college mathematics teachers. Eighty-nine percent of American lessons were found to be of low quality and none were judged to be of high quality. In comparison, 11 percent of Japanese lessons and 34 percent of German lessons were found to be of low quality, and 39 percent of Japanese lessons and 28 percent of German lessons were judged to be of high quality." (See nces.ed.gov/timss/.)

Lives of Students
Curriculum and instruction are the pieces of the situation which are under the control of educators, but they do not happen in a vacuum. Researchers looked for information about the lives of students, to see if this could explain the differing results. It is clear that there is no easy answer. "For example:

  • Television: Students in other countries watch just as much television as our students;
  • Part-time jobs: More U.S. students work in part-time jobs and work more hours than students in countries that scored higher and lower than us; and
  • Homework: Students in some countries that outperform us do less homework and studying than we do, while students in other countries that we outperform do more." (See nces.ed.gov/timss/.)

Relevance to CPMP
Since no CPMP students were assessed by TIMSS, you may be wondering how these results are relevant to CPMP classrooms.

  • One of the findings of TIMSS was that students are not typically required to do very high level thinking in class.
    Most U.S. teachers spend their class time telling students how to do something, and students follow their lead. This results in students having a very passive view of learning, quite at odds with what we know about how learning actually occurs, and at odds with the more active style of learning required for results for CPMP students on released TIMSS items.
  • Students often feel that the more passive style they may have experienced prior to this is in fact the correct way to proceed.
    "After viewing U.S. and Japanese lessons, U.S. students who participated in the field testing of the (video study) module's materials were asked which class they would choose to learn mathematics in, and why. They said that they would like to be in the U.S. class because "the teacher explained well and students were learning." When asked to give specific evidence of "explaining well," some students replied that "the teacher started sentences for the students to help them, and he went step by step."
  • Another of the findings of TIMSS was that the U.S. mathematics curriculum kept more topics in every year from K-12. This results in the "mile wide, inch deep" phenomenon that many educators noted.
    More in-depth study of fewer high-priority topics is done in other countries. CPMP focuses on important mathematics and gives students time to develop essential concepts. While some topics are revisited with more abstraction in later courses, it is not the case that students will repeat the same material.
  • Another finding of TIMSS was that Japanese teachers focus on understanding and U.S. teachers focus on skill. This is reflected in U.S. high-stakes tests, which have traditionally valued skill acquisition and speed.
    Little wonder then that U.S. teachers have internalized these values and set up classrooms that seem compatible with what appear to be the traditional goals. However, in terms of learning and understanding, the TIMSS results show the shortcomings of this focus. CPMP classrooms have a dual focus: first student investigations lead to firmly-grounded learning; then homework and practice books (RAP) help automate skills. As a parent you have a role to play in both of these areas. (See Helping with Homework.)

Signs of Improvement Nationally
In 1999, the TIMSS was repeated with a subset of the eighth-grade students of the original countries. Some states and school districts or consortiums of school districts were entered as separate entities. Since some states had been making efforts to improve standards and some school districts had adopted research-based mathematics curricula, there was hope that the results would reflect such efforts. In fact, the U.S. as a whole improved on the 1995 results but still placed in the middle of the participating nations. However, there was considerable variation among the states and districts. Michigan outperformed all other states, but still could not be called world class. Most significantly, a set of Michigan schools whose mathematics curricula were oriented around principles of coherence and rigor in standards and testing and reflected priorities similar to the Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum, outperformed the state of Michigan despite being demographically similar to the entire state. These are encouraging statistics for educators. It would appear that attending to the coherence of the curriculum and the effectiveness of how that curriculum is taught can make a difference.

Other Resources

  • Schmidt, William H., Curtis C. McKnight, and Senta A. Raizen. A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education. Boston / Dordrecht / London, Kluwer Academic Press, 1997. (See ustimss.msu.edu/publicat.htm.)
  • The Policy Forum. A Wake-Up Call for U.S. Educators: The Third International Mathematics and Science Study. (See www.ed.gov/pubs/policyforum/Spring99/timss.html.)
Copyright 2021 Core-Plus Mathematics Project. All rights reserved.