CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – To no one’s surprise, Asian students outscored their American classmates on the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a highly respected international assessment administered every four years to compare the mathematics and science test scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students from around the world. But according to a University of Illinois education professor, one standardized test should not be taken as a final verdict on the quality of math and science education in U.S. elementary schools.
“TIMSS should be taken with a huge grain of salt because there are a lot of ways to spin the data, positively and negatively,” said Sarah Lubienski, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the U. of I.’s College of Education.
About one-seventh of the countries in the world participate in TIMSS, she said.
“If you measured us against all the countries in the world, we would look better,” she said. “If the world took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, it’s very possible we might look much better, because we prepare kids for NAEP-like questions. So we can look better or worse depending on whom we compare ourselves to, and what test we use to compare ourselves with.”
Lubienski said the recently released 2007 results, which showed an increase in math scores but only a slight uptick in science scores for U.S. students, are mostly good, though she doubts the value of such tests because “there’s really not that much evidence to say that doing well on TIMSS correlates with anything.”
“I really question whether these are the scores we want to worry about,” she said.
For most U.S. students, TIMSS is just another test in an ever-increasing number of standardized tests they’re forced to take throughout the school year.
“In some sense, I’m surprised we do as well as we do,” Lubienski said. “If you look at the top-scoring Asian countries, they had 100 percent school participation. In the U.S., we had among the lowest. In some countries it’s a point of national pride to participate in TIMSS.”
Although Asian students are consistently the top-performing students on international math and science tests, Lubienski said that success on standardized tests comes at a price.
“Those kids are working very hard in cram schools, after their normal school day, because they have a very high-stakes test that they take when they’re about 14 years old that determines the rest of their life,” she said. “There’s a loss of childhood when your child’s life revolves around cramming for a test, and some would argue a loss of creativity. I don’t think we want that for our kids.”
The most glaring piece of information that can be gleaned from the report, according to Lubienski, is the stark inequity between the richest and poorest schools in the U.S.
“The gulf between the lowest- and highest-scoring schools in the U.S. is a much greater gap than the distance between the U.S. and the top-scoring countries,” she said. “To my mind, that suggests that President-elect Obama ought to worry more about what’s going on in Mississippi than competing with the Singapores of the world on one type of test. If we could bring those kids in our lowest-performing districts up to grade level, not only would we look a lot better on international tests, but, more importantly, we would be a stronger, fairer country.”
Lubienski said that classroom time is the biggest factor in improving students’ science scores. But with the No Child Left Behind law effectively straitjacketing teachers into focusing almost exclusively on improving reading and math scores, science class, along with art, writing, recess and gym class, usually ends up getting cut in favor of rote test preparation.
“I think if we just had more time for science in schools, we would see a difference in the scores,” she said, noting that science has recently been added to tests mandated by No Child Left Behind for fourth and seventh grade students.
“We might see a difference in science scores next time because of that,” she said, “but we’re still losing sight of the arts and of reading interesting books for the sake of reading interesting books while shifting our focus almost exclusively to subjects that are testable. Yes, we can show results with that, which is a good thing. But when I talk to teachers out in the field and they tell me they know they’re not teaching as well as they could because they have to stay on their pacing guide, then we’re not helping students.”
The disparity in the test scores between the wealthiest and the poorest school districts in the U.S. also throws into broad relief the lack of quality teachers in the communities where they’re needed most.
“We absolutely need better, more qualified teachers in our schools, and they need to be in the schools where they’re needed most – not in, say, the suburbs of Chicago, but in poor and rural communities,” she said. “Poorer districts have a hard time competing with wealthy districts in attracting and supporting the best teachers. If we’re serious about improving education in this country, we need to make helping those with the least in our country our top priority, because those kids deserve the same opportunities that kids in the high-scoring schools have.”