Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Where Are We in the Horse Race?

vonzastrowc's picture

The new results of the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) seem at first blush very encouraging. U.S. 4th and 8th graders improved in mathematics, though their science performance remained essentially flat. In fact, improvement in U.S. 8th-graders' mathematics scores outpaced that of students in most other participating countries.

In 8th-grade science, apparently only Singapore and Taiwan outperformed Massachusetts.

Cause for celebration? Not so fast, says Mark Schneider from the American Institutes for Research. He points to yawning achievement gaps laid bare by the TIMSS results. He also notes that some high-performing OECD countries that bested the U.S. in the 2007 Programme for International Assessment did not participate in TIMSS, possibly skewing the results.

Still, American 4th and 8th graders who took the TIMSS assessment outperformed students in countries such as Germany, Australia, Sweden, Austria, New Zealand and Norway. All of these nations performed better than the U.S. in the 2007 PISA, which assesses 15-year-olds.

So, do American students lose that much ground between the ages of 13 and 15? Or do TIMSS and PISA measure different things? Perhaps a bit of both.

Creators of PISA purport to measure how well students can apply academic concepts. (On this point, see our interview with PISA director Andreas Schleicher.) Critics of PISA contend that the test is inferior to TIMSS, because (they claim) it emphasizes lower-level skills. (Stanford mathematician Jim Milgram sent us his version of this argument a couple of months ago.) These critics point to PISA superstar Finland's relatively disappointing showing in the 1999 TIMSS as evidence of Finland's unexamined shortcomings and PISA's weakness. (Finland has not participated in TIMSS since 1999.)

I don't have a horse in this particular race. But the dissonance between the PISA and TIMSS results should remind us to review international assessments with a critical eye before making final pronouncements on their meaning.

We report. You decide.