Tackling the TIMSS.(Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

By Hettinger, James | Techniques, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Tackling the TIMSS.(Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)


Hettinger, James, Techniques


Ever since the Third International Mathematics and Science Study began yielding results, educators have been looking for ways to imptove U.S. test scores. Could applied learning techniques be part of the answer?

U.S. students are sliding down a slippery slope in math and science achievement--doing progressively worse than their international peers as they move from fourth grade through high school.

So said the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which tested more than half a million students in 41 countries and bills itself as the most comprehensive student assessment ever conducted.

Many educators and government officials see the study as a wake-up call for American education. They say the poor showing by U.S. high school students points out the need for higher academic standards, greater enrollment in advanced math and science courses, less repetition of material in the middle grades and better teacher preparation.

Meanwhile, career and technical educators might be wondering if their specialty--hands-on teaching and learning in a real-world context--can help lift students' scores on a test that's designed to measure practical knowledge. Its advocates say applied learning isn't a cure-all, but it can help improve the motivation and performance of students who learn better when they see how the material connects to the real world.

"Applied learning is one of the tools that should be in your tool belt," says Joy McLarty, director of workforce development products for ACT Inc., a nonprofit education organization best known for its college entrance exams. "[But] it's not a silver bullet."

Falling performance

TIMSS, conducted in 1995, tested the math and science ability of fourth-graders, eighth-graders and students finishing secondary school; the results have been released by grade level over the past two and a half years.

U.S. fourth-graders did relatively well on the test, scoring above the international average in math and finishing behind only Korea in science. But by eighth grade, TIMSS found U.S. students falling below the international average for math and doing only slightly better than other countries' average performance in science.

The 12th-grade results, released last winter, showed U.S. students in free fall. Average and top-level students failed to match the international averages for math and science. U.S. high school seniors managed average scores above only two of the 21 countries tested (Cyprus and South Africa).

Many U.S. 12th graders got stumped by TIMSS questions like this one:

"Experts say that 25 percent of all serious bicycle accidents involve head injuries and that, of all head injuries, 80 percent are fatal. What percent of all serious bicycle accidents involve fatal head injuries?"

A) 16 percent

B) 20 percent

C) 55 percent

D) 105 percent

The correct answer is B (20 percent, or 80 percent of the 25 percent of accidents involving head injuries). Fifty-seven percent of U.S. students got it right, compared with the international average of 64 percent correct. Some students chose C, which is the difference between the two percentages, not their product.

Another item gave students the dimensions of a box and asked them how much ribbon would be needed to wrap around all sides and still have 25 centimeters left to tie a bow. Forty-five percent of the international students got it right, while only 32 percent of U.S. students found the right answer. Some students forgot to include the sides of the box that aren't visible in the picture, or they failed to leave the extra ribbon to tie the bow.

One science problem asked students to explain why high-heeled shoes can damage floors. The answer is that narrow heels exert the pressure of the body's weight over a smaller surface area. Only 42 percent of U.S. students knew the answer, while 61 percent of international students did. …

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