Why the Best Stay on Top in Latest Math and Science Tests

The latest results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released yesterday show that fourth- and eighth-grade students from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea have retained—and in some cases widened—their lead over the rest of the 63 countries that took the TIMSS tests in 2011. The scientists who manage this quadrennial exercise say that a big reason why East Asian countries continue to lead the rest of the world is their ability to implement necessary improvements in their school systems.

"Revolutionary results require revolutionary changes," says Michael Martin, co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College that administered TIMSS and PIRLS, a similar test of reading and literacy skills. Those changes are more likely to occur, he says, in countries that have a centralized education system and can move quickly to embrace the latest thinking on how to improve schooling.

"In Singapore, they are constantly revising their curriculum and helping teachers integrate those changes into their classroom," Martin says. "In contrast, the United States agonizes over what the curriculum should be and how to implement it. And by the time we have decided what to do, it's time to revise the curriculum again."

Countries trying to break into the top tier need to do more than simply make steady progress, notes Ina Mullis, the center's other co-director. "Moving up takes a lot of hard work and energy" because those on top continue to improve as well, Mullis says. "Those with the biggest increases [over time] have really mobilized their systems to make a big leap forward."

Martin notes that Russia, which has shown significant improvement in recent years and sits ahead of the United States in all four categories, made a decision several years ago to add a year of primary schooling. That means its fourth-graders now have an extra year of classroom learning under their belts before taking the TIMSS tests.

TIMSS was first administered in 1995. And Singapore and the other countries setting the pace on student achievement have been diligent about using a range of information collected by TIMSS over the years to improve their educational systems, Mullis says. That information includes data on school organization, teacher training, parental attitudes, and the home environment.

The decentralized control and wide variations across the U.S. education landscape make it harder to adopt nationwide reforms, Mullis admits. But she says the test results have provided U.S. educators with useful models.

"Of course, we are more spread out. But the Singapore curriculum was very much on people's minds when they were drawing up the Common Core in mathematics," Mullis says, referring to voluntary standards adopted earlier this year by 46 states to improve mathematics and literacy.

In the meantime, U.S. students are holding their own on the international test. Fourth-graders in math recorded the biggest jump over their 2007 counterparts, with the average score going up 12 points to 541. (By comparison, students from Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong all topped 600.) However, U.S. students in the other three categories—fourth-grade science and eighth-grade math and science—recorded no statistically significant change over 2007.

For those keeping a global tally, the 2011 results place U.S. students 11th in fourth-grade math, ninth in eighth-grade math, seventh in fourth-grade science, and 10th in eighth-grade science. And Gerry Wheeler, interim executive director of the U.S. National Science Teachers Association, said TIMSS offers U.S. educators a clear message. "While we have made small strides at the fourth and eighth grade levels, we still have a great deal of work ahead if we want to be number one in the world in science achievement. We can and must do better," Wheeler said. "TIMSS helps us to understand what we are doing well and what we need to pursue."