Reports assess global student achievement in math, science and reading literacy

December 11th, 2012
Michael O. Martin and Ina V.S. Mullis are the executive directors of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College. Credit: Lee Pellegrini
Students from East Asian countries, in addition to a select group of European countries, outperformed students around the world in mathematics, science and reading at both the fourth and eighth grades, according to results released Dec. 11 by Lynch School of Education Professors Ina V.S. Mullis and Michael O. Martin, executive directors of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the first global assessment of mathematics and science to provide data about trends over time, measuring achievement in these subjects every four years at the fourth and eighth grades since 1995. Performance on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) represents the "gold standard" internationally for reading comprehension at the fourth grade, measuring trends every five years since 2001.

As in previous cycles, TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 - the fifth and third assessments of each project, respectively - report achievement at four international benchmarks that describe what students know and can do in mathematics, science, and reading, and can be used to help interpret achievement scores.

In mathematics at the fourth grade, Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong were top performers, followed by Chinese Taipei and Japan. Northern Ireland, the Flemish Community of Belgium, Finland, England, and the Russian Federation also performed very well. In addition, the US state of North Carolina also had high achievement, though lower than the East Asian countries.

In mathematics at the eighth grade, Korea, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei led the world in achievement, followed by Hong Kong and Japan. There was a substantial gap in achievement between these five East Asian countries and the next highest performing countries, including the Russian Federation, Israel, Finland, the United States, and England. For example, the gap in average achievement between Korea and England is more than 100 points. In addition, the US states of Massachusetts and Minnesota also had high achievement.

Korea and Singapore were the top performers in fourth-grade science, followed by Finland, Japan, the Russian Federation, Chinese Taipei and the United States. The US state of Florida also had high achievement, though not as high as the top seven. Singapore was the highest achiever in science at the eighth grade, followed by Chinese Taipei, Korea and Japan. Finland, Slovenia, the Russian Federation, Hong Kong, and England also performed well. In addition, Massachusetts had achievement higher than all countries except Singapore.

The top-performing countries in fourth grade reading were Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Finland and Singapore. Northern Ireland, the United States, Denmark, Croatia, and Chinese Taipei also had higher achievement than the majority of other participants. In addition, Florida and the Canadian province of Ontario were among the highest achieving participants.

Projects of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), TIMSS and PIRLS are the preeminent international assessments monitoring changes in student achievement at regular intervals. TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 represent a landmark event - the first time the two renowned international assessments have been conducted concurrently. In 2011, TIMSS and PIRLS assessed nearly 900,000 students worldwide: TIMSS in 63 countries and 14 benchmarking participants, and PIRLS in 49 countries and nine benchmarking participants.

"The Lynch School is proud to be the home of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center," said Lynch School Interim Dean Maureen Kenny. "The assessments designed and managed by Professors Mullis and Martin provide rich sources of data that describe students, teachers, schools, academic curricula and educational policies around the globe and inspire deep reflection and debate on what can be done to enhance education worldwide."

Performance on PIRLS represents the "gold standard" internationally for reading comprehension at the fourth grade. PIRLS has measured trends in reading comprehension at the fourth grade every five years since 2001, with PIRLS 2011 being the third assessment.

"TIMSS and PIRLS are designed to measure trends in achievement and to show growth or decline over time," explains IEA Executive Director Hans Wagemaker. "As a result, many countries and benchmarking participants have comparable data from previous assessments that allow them to monitor system-level trends in a global context."

Since 1995, 12 countries have raised their average mathematics achievement at the fourth grade level; eight have done so in science; and 10 have increased their reading achievement. At the eighth grade level, nine countries had increases in mathematics achievement, and 11 countries had increases in science.

A number of countries have been working hard to improve their educational achievement, by redeveloping curricula, for example, raising standards for teacher certification, or increasing the number of years of schooling, according to Mullis and Martin, who oversee the global assessment.

"It is very impressive that so many countries have been able to improve student performance since 1995," said Martin. "It is all the more impressive that some countries have managed to raise achievement at all four International benchmarks, for the lowest- as well as the highest-performing students."

"For the most part, students around the world are very positive about learning mathematics, science, and reading," added Mullis. "However, in an environment where countries are trying to attract students into future mathematics and science-related careers, it is a matter of some concern that, by the eighth grade, there is an erosion of positive attitudes towards mathematics learning and instruction."

The new reports also provide an extensive set of contextual information collected by student, teacher, school, curriculum, and parent questionnaires, which offer insights into factors that are positively related to academic success.

More information:
The full report is available at

Provided by Boston College

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