The Sky Is Not Falling

Two things are for sure when you read the tables and graphs in the latest TIMMS report, released today:

(1) The sky is NOT falling;


(2) This report gives no evidence of a major educational crisis in math education in the USA. On the contrary.

In fact, of all the many countries listed, US students’s average scores rank among the top 20-30%  of all the countries listed. If the long-term trends mean anything at all, American students are consistently improving, going back to 1995, well before the current round of top-down, billionaire-backed educational “rephorms’ began being imposed on American public schools.

If you don’t believe me, then look at these tables, copied directly from the TIMMS report, and see for yourself.

In all of them, I drew a red line around the scores of US students to make it easier to find.

This first table shows the distribution of math scores for 4th graders, ranked from high to low.

Notice first of all that the US is #11 out of about 50, which puts it at the 78th percentile, or definitely in the top quarter of all nations participating.

If you look carefully at the smeared-looking band to the right of the names of the countries, and if you read the legend, you see that EVERY SINGLE NATION has a significant gap between its best-achieving students and its lowest-achieving students. Including the USA. It does not seem like our gap is particularly wide or particularly narrow in comparison with the gaps in other countries. It looks to me like Romania’s might be the widest, and the gap in the Netherlands between the top and bottom students appears to be the narrowest.  We also ‘beat’ a lot of supposedly high-achieving, wealthy countries: Germany, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand…

So, not too bad, overall. No sign of crisis here.

distribution of math 4th ach international


In this next graph, the US is #9 out of the same 50 countries in performance at various benchmarks in 4th grade math. We have 13% of our fourth graders reaching something that the TIMMS calls their ‘advanced’ benchmark; 47% of our students reaching a ‘high’ benchmark; 88% of the students reaching the ‘intermediate’ benchmark; and 96% of our students passing the ‘low’ benchmark. As you can see, while there are some countries scoring better than the US, we beat the vast majority of them.

4th grade int'l benchmarks math


This next graph/chart shows how 4th grade students in the USA and a few other countries are doing over time, going back to 1995. As you can see, American fourth graders’ scores have been going up as assessed by this test, modestly but significantly, during the past 16 years, but there was not much change from 1995 to 2003. BTW: Finland’s scores fell by quite a bit, and there is sure to be some head-scratching there.



4th grade trends in USA+SVE+SLO+TUN



The next two graphs show how 4th-grade math students in of the nations with enough prior scores have been doing over time. Note that in the US, we went from 9% of our fourth-grade students being ‘advanced’ in 1995, to only 7% ‘advanced’ in 2003, to 10% in that category in 2007, to 11% ‘advanced’ last year. The percentages of American fourth-grade math students reaching the ‘high’ benchmark went from 37% to 35% to 40% to 47% — which seems pretty decent to me.








4th grade int'l benchmarks math - trends over time

This last graph is a continuation of the last one, but it shows what percentage of students in the various countries reached or exceeded the ‘Intermediate’ and ‘low’ benchmarks.

4th grade intermed + low benchmarks over time

Again: The sky is not falling, and if we look at these results, there is no sign of a crisis in US elementary math education.

[Let me know (via comments) if you need more explication of what these graphs imply.]

Published in: on December 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It is only a crisis if the definition of a crisis is “Not being the best in the world at everything.”


    • But in the US, that is indeed the working definition of a crisis when it comes to education (and much else). And we’re not alone. Australia’s current PM has “mandated” that it will be in the top 5 on the next international wild goose ch. . . er, comparative test of math and science. Lots of luck with that, mate.

      Frankly, I don’t give a damn about this sort of thing. I like a lot about Finnish education because it’s humane, child-centered, equitable, and most of all, sane. If their test scores are at the top or the middle matters very little, to me at least. If ours were at the top, we’d still have a crappy approach to education that needed a lot of fixing. But instead of getting the RIGHT message from our alleged failures, we get only the wrong messages and decide to double down on our worst ideas and practices. I’m 62, and if things don’t straighten out in the next 62 years, I’m going to find another profession.


  2. I want to make two remarks:
    1. The USA has always done better on TIMSS than on PISA because TIMSS tests retention of the taught curriculum and PISA tests the ability to apply the taught curriculum. It is clear which is more important.

    2. I am disturbed, however, by the significant discrepancies between findings in 2009 PISA and 2010 TIMSS and PIRLS.

    I am both an American and an Australian and have been a school principal in both countries. Australia is currently in a lather about the appalling grade 4 PIRLS reading scores. I imagine New Zealand is similarly agitated. Both countries have regularly been in the top 10% in reading in PISA and the USA has always performed well below both nations. Suddenly this PIRLS report reverses the situation.

    For results to be so dramatically different it seems to me that something significant must be amiss.


  3. Guy – can you see to it that your anaysis is distributed widely?

    To Joshua Starr of Montgomery county, MD as a start. He’s a sane Superintendent.


    • I could use some help on disseminating this analysis.


  4. […] Brandenburg has a great post on the latest TIMSS […]


  5. […] Safety, Health Linked to Achievement in Global Data is from Education Week. The Sky Is Not Falling is by GF […]


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