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TIMSS 1999

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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

MEDIA NOTE: The full TIMSS 1999 reports are available on-line at the International Study Center's web site on the Publications page or by calling 617-552-1600. To arrange interviews with the TIMSS International Study CO-Directors Michael O. Martin or Ina V.S. Mullis, or to obtain camera-ready color charts, please call the Boston College Office of Public Affairs at 617-552-3352.







Statement by Dr. Alejandro Tiana
Chairperson, International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA)

In my presentation, I will address the issue of why countries decide to participate in a study like TIMSS, and how these countries benefit from that participation.

The IEA has been conducting international studies aimed at evaluating educational achievement for more than forty years now, with more than sixty countries having participated in those comparative surveys. The main purpose of IEA has always been to provide policy makers and educational practitioners with information and indicators about their national education systems from an international perspective. This information has been related to basic school subjects (mathematics, language, and science), but also to other relevant areas of educational activity (for instance, preprimary policies and practices, use of information technology in education, and civic education).

IEA's aim has been not only to provide indicators about achievement in such subjects and areas, but also to search for explanations of that achievement. That is the reason why the studies are not simply based in tests, but also include different questionnaires for collecting data about school and classroom process variables, as well as teacher and student background variables. TIMSS is an excellent example of the type of benefits countries may derive from participating in such studies.

Making comparisons in an international perspective

Countries participating in IEA studies receive relevant information about the state of their education systems from an international perspective. This can also be referred to as the "mirror" function of international studies.

The international comparison provides countries with different types of information, including:

  • Multiple indicators of educational achievement. From the TIMSS 1999 results, countries may know what their outcomes are both in mathematics and science at the eighth grade. Countries may assess their achievement in both subjects, looking at the range of performance inside the country and the significant differences with other countries. More than just league tables, the TIMSS data place achievement in an international context where it can be considered from multiple perspectives. For instance, Canada may learn that its achievement in mathematics is above the mean and basically similar to the Netherlands, Hungary, Finland or Malaysia. Chilean results in science are clearly below the average, and similar to those of Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey.

Countries also receive information about the percentages of students reaching international benchmarks, established by the study. For instance, nearly three-fourths of Australian students performed at or above the Median Benchmark in science, though less than half did in Moldova or Cyprus (39%). Information about gender differences in achievement – how girls do compared with boys in general and at different benchmarks – can help countries work towards gender equity in science and mathematics education.

Beyond general achievement in mathematics and science, TIMSS provides results for different content areas within each subject. For example, in mathematics the content areas include fractions and number sense; measurement; data representation, analysis, and probability; geometry; and algebra. So, whatever their overall results might be, Israel can learn that it has a balanced result among the different areas in mathematics, while South Africa has a much more unbalanced one, with better results in data representation than in algebra, for instance.

  • Trends in achievement across time. One of the most important features of TIMSS 1999 compared to previous international studies developed by IEA and other organizations is the ability to examine trends in achievement in mathematics and science over time. For instance, between 1995 and 1999 Canada has improved significantly its achievement in science at the eighth grade, but not in mathematics, while the Czech Republic has maintained its achievement in science, but clearly decreased in mathematics. The United States had a similar level of achievement over the four years in both subjects.

    Of course, each country should examine its own trend data individually, to seek reasons for improvements or decreases. Again, the international perspective helps to identify strengths and weaknesses.

  • Multiple perspectives about policies, practices, and resources. From the information obtained through questionnaires, countries can learn how their educational conditions compare with other countries. For instance, students in Chinese Taipei have a less positive attitude towards mathematics than in Singapore, but both are much higher than Korea or Japan. It does mean that countries with a similar range of results may vary a lot in other different aspects.

    Countries may compare their own curriculum guidelines with others. For instance, the relatively low-achieving countries of Malaysia and Tunisia give little importance to teaching about subatomic particles at the eighth grade, but neither does a high-achieving educational system like Belgium (Flemish). And similar analyses could be done for other fields, like wave phenomena or energy types. The TIMSS comparison of curriculum guidelines internationally may help countries to revise their own, reflecting about contents, topics, grade distribution, and so on.

Searching for reasons of achievement

The whole set of TIMSS indicators provides a much more detailed picture than just a gross measure of achievement. This is one of the most attractive features of TIMSS, because the multiple indicators allow countries to make detailed national analyses and obtain valuable information about their education systems from an international perspective. The number and variety of data provided do not lead to making simple, straightforward comparisons, but to taking into account the complexity of education practices and outcomes, and detecting the various strong and weak points within one's own country.

It is necessary to recognize that educational research has not developed to the point of providing policy makers and educators with definitive explanations for differences in achievement. Nevertheless, studies like TIMSS do point to several factors affecting achievement. For example, the results indicate that teaching practices, interruptions from outside the classroom, and teachers' confidence in their preparation to teach mathematics are more closely related to students' outcomes in that subject than simply providing more instructional time.

TIMSS also shows students in classes emphasizing reasoning and problem-solving had higher achievement in mathematics than those in classes with a low emphasis on these activities. Moreover, students in schools well resourced got higher scores in both mathematics and science than those in schools with shortages in equipment. These kinds of analyses, even if still preliminary, may help countries examine their situations in relation to those factors identified as related to outcomes.

In general terms, it can be said that the results of international studies do not lead to easy answers to complex educational problems, but they contribute to informed decision making by educational authorities and practitioners. To take full advantage of participating in such studies, countries should combine international results with national assessments and other national in-depth studies. IEA experience shows that this is a way followed by a growing number of countries, and it improves the immense possibilities of comparative achievement studies.

– END –

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Dr. Alejandro Tiana



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