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Statement by Dr. Ina V.S. Mullis and Dr. Michael O. Martin
Co-Directors, the International Study Center at Boston College

Media Contact: Patricia Delaney Director of Media Relations
Boston College

TIMSS Project Contact:
Michael O. Martin
Ina V.S. Mullis
Co-Directors International Study Center


Press Exhibits – PowerPoint (Mac) | (Windows) or Acrobat PDF

Presentation of TIMSS 1999 Benchmarking Study Results

It is our pleasure to release the results from the TIMSS 1999 Benchmarking Study, which enabled states and districts to take part in TIMSS 1999 and assess the comparative international standing of their eighth-grade students’ mathematics and science achievement among 38 countries. The results are detailed in two companion volumes:

  • Mathematics Benchmarking Report, TIMSS 1999 – Eighth Grade

  • Science Benchmarking Report, TIMSS 1999 – Eighth Grade

Participants included 13 states from all across the country, and 14 districts and consortia of districts with widely differing characteristics. For example, they ranged from having hardly any (2%) to almost all (89%) of their students from low-income families. By virtue of its participation in such a venture, each Benchmarking jurisdiction obviously has shown a deep commitment to educational improvement. It took courage and initiative to join such a high profile enterprise as "benchmarking" against the world class performance of students in the top-scoring TIMSS 1999 countries.

This landmark study charted innovative and exciting new waters by providing states and districts the unprecedented opportunity to engage in a practice common in the business world – benchmarking against the processes others use to achieve success. Since the strength of TIMSS is placing achievement in the context of an extremely rich array of information about the many organizational elements of education internationally, today is only the first step. The real work lies ahead for each participant, as they systematically investigate the vast amount of TIMSS data in depth, consider areas of strengths and weaknesses, and implement policies and practices for improvement.

On Mathematics Achievement

From Singapore to South Africa, the 38 countries participating in TIMSS 1999 represented an extremely broad range in mathematics achievement. Five Asian countries were the top performers. Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong SAR had the highest average achievement, and Japan also performed very well.
U.S. eighth graders exceeded the international average of the 38 TIMSS countries, but were close to the middle of the distribution – above 17 countries, similar to 6 countries, and below 14 countries.

As in the United States, mathematics performance in the 13 Benchmarking states also was generally clustered in the middle of the international distribution of average achievement. All of the Benchmarking states performed either significantly above or similar to the international average, yet well below the five high-performing Asian countries.

In contrast, mathematics performance across the participating school districts and consortia reflected nearly the full range of achievement internationally. Although achievement was not as high as Singapore, Korea, and Chinese Taipei, the Naperville School District and the First in the World Consortium (both in Illinois) were at the high end of the continuum, performing similarly to Hong Kong and Japan as well as Belgium (Flemish) and the Netherlands.

At the other end of the continuum, several urban districts with high percentages of students from low-income families and minorities performed similarly to lower-performing TIMSS 1999 countries, but significantly higher than the lowest-scoring countries.

On Science Achievement

The range in science achievement also was substantial for the TIMSS 1999 countries. Chinese Taipei and Singapore had the highest average performance in science, closely followed by Hungary, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.

Similar to mathematics, performance in science for the United States was higher than the international average, but near the middle of the distribution – above 18 countries, similar to 5, and below 14.

For the 13 Benchmarking states, however, average science performance was relatively better than in mathematics, with performance clustered in the upper half of the international distribution. All but three states performed significantly above the international average.

The range in science achievement for the districts and consortia was nearly as wide as for the countries. The Naperville School District topped the chart in science, accompanied by the First in the World Consortium, the Michigan Invitational Group, and Colorado’s Academy School District, all of which had average achievement comparable to Chinese Taipei and Singapore.

The Benchmarking participants with the lowest average science achievement were four urban districts with high percentages of students from low-income families and minorities.

On Mathematics and Science Content Areas

Of the five mathematics content areas assessed, students in the Benchmarking jurisdictions generally followed the national pattern of performing above the international average in algebra, fractions and number sense, and data representation, but not in measurement and geometry.

As one might expect, students’ relative strengths in number and algebra corresponded to teachers’ reports about the mathematics areas taught in school. Although there was some variation in the Benchmarking districts, teachers in the United States and the 13 Benchmarking states indicated that most eighth-grade students were in mathematics classes emphasizing either number or algebra, or a combination of algebra, geometry, and number.

The consistency among U.S. jurisdictions was remarkable in the light of the variation in results across the TIMSS 1999 countries. Despite curricular control at the state and local level, it appears that there may be similarities in curricular emphases especially among the states in mathematics. However, the curricular pattern did differ from that of the top-performing Asian countries where most students were in classes emphasizing algebra and geometry in combination with each other or other mathematics topics.

Following the U.S. pattern, the majority of the Benchmarking participants performed above the international average in all the science content areas except physics. It is difficult to link this achievement pattern with the subject matter taught in science classes, however, because there was considerable variation in content area emphasis among the Benchmarking participants and many students were in general science classes.

Disparities in Opportunities to Learn

The TIMSS Benchmarking Study provides evidence that some schools in the United States are among the best in the world, but that a world-class education is not available to all children.

In comparison with selected countries (U.S. trading partners and high-performing countries), the top-achieving Benchmarking jurisdictions had high percentages of eighth-grade students from well-resourced homes. Those with the lowest achievement were four urban districts that also had the lowest percentages of students with high levels of home educational resources.

Students with fewer educational resources at home also often have fewer opportunities at school. The Benchmarking results go hand in hand with existing research showing that students in urban districts also often attend schools with fewer resources than in non-urban districts, including a less challenging curriculum and an atmosphere less conducive to learning.

On Teacher Preparation

Compared to internationally, teachers in many Benchmarking jurisdictions may be overconfident about their preparation to teach eighth-grade mathematics. Across the Benchmarking participants, the smallest percentage of students with teachers who felt "very well prepared" to teach mathematics was 75 percent – compared to the international average of 63 percent. The comparable figure for the United States was 87 percent. Although more confident than their colleagues internationally, benchmarking teachers were less confident in their preparation to teach science. Just 27 percent in the U.S. felt "very well prepared," with a range across Benchmarking jurisdictions from 56 percent to 14 percent.

On Instructional Time

U.S. eighth-graders have more hours of instructional time in mathematics and science than do students internationally. Simply providing instructional time is not sufficient, however, if that time is not spent productively. Interestingly, the teachers in Korea as well as in high-performing Naperville and the First in the World Consortium reported comparatively less amounts of instructional time than many of the other TIMSS participants.

TIMSS shows that interruptions can detract from instructional time. In Japan and Korea, the majority of students were in mathematics and science classes that never had interruptions for announcements or administrative tasks. Among the Benchmarking participants, Naperville had the highest percentage of eighth graders in such classes, but it was only 22 percent for mathematics and 30 percent for science.

Indicative of further erosion of instructional time, compared to internationally, the Benchmarking participants reported an unusually large amount of classroom time devoted to working on homework, particularly in mathematics. From 43 to 90 percent of eighth graders across the benchmarking participants reported almost always or pretty often beginning homework in mathematics class. This figure was 74 percent in the United States.

In conclusion, the TIMSS Benchmarking reports provide a unique perspective for a systematic investigation of educational policies and practices. It is clear from the TIMSS results that improving students’ opportunities to learn requires examining every aspect of the educational system, including the curriculum, teacher quality, availability of resources, students’ motivation, instructional effectiveness, parental support, and school safety. TIMSS reminds us that there is no "magic bullet" or single factor that is the answer to higher achievement in mathematics or science. Raising achievement involves improvements in a number of important areas related to educational quality.
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