Disappointing international test results not due to student diversity

Critics of international tests suggest that the mediocre scores of students in United States do not truly reflect their achievement. They point out that few countries in the world have so diverse a population with such extremes of wealth and poverty. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) involved half a million students in 41 countries. Results show U.S. fourth-graders to be above the international average in both math and science, with science close to the nation’s goal of being number one in the world.

In eighth grade, however, U.S. students’ scores decline sharply, becoming only average, and by 12th grade scores dip below average. William H. Schmidt and Richard T. Houang, University of Michigan, and Richard G. Wolfe, University of Toronto, studied the TIMSS results to determine if the scores of U.S. students were more varied than the scores of other nations in the study and if this could explain the lower averages of U.S. students. They found that, overall, U.S. mathematics scores do not show greater variation.

In science, the U.S. variation is large, but our students perform better compared to other countries. This is consistent with the trend that countries who score higher tend to have great variance in their scores.

These researchers suspect that mediocre math and science performance in middle and high schools is more likely due to differences in what U.S. students study. Research on international test results has shown that these differences in achievement are related to variations in curriculum.

The U.S. math curriculum, in particular, lacks focus and is highly repetitive, especially in the middle-school years. It does not provide our children with rigorous education by international standards. Overlong textbooks emphasize quantity rather than in-depth coverage of important concepts.

Tracking and local decisions about curriculum topics mean that the curriculum is not as uniform as it is in other countries. Even students in the same school and grade often study different curricula.

In conclusion, the variation in scores of U.S. students is not exceptional. Despite the diversity of our student population, variations in student achievement are not very different from other nations, especially in math where we score more poorly. Therefore, demographic diversity cannot explain the mediocre TIMSS scores of U.S. students.

When we compare only the best students in each country, for example, U.S. students scoring in the top 25 percent in math score only as high as students in the average range in higher-performing countries.

In science, however, the highest-performing U.S. students score on par with the high-performing students in other high-achieving nations. These researcher suggest that differences in curricula and textbooks may be largely responsible for differences in performance.

“Apples to Apples” The American School Board Journal, Volume 186, Number 7, July 1999, pp. 29-33.

Published in ERN September 1999 Volume 12 Number 6

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