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Testing the world’s schoolchildren in math, science, and reading
On December 11, researchers in the United States and the Netherlands will announce the results of the latest international survey of math and science achievement among fourth and eighth grade students. TIMSS (formally, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which has been conducted every four years since 1995, is the world’s largest review of student performance in those subjects—some 600,000 children in 63 countries, from Armenia to Yemen, took the standardized tests in 2011—and the study’s findings regularly provoke wide-ranging education reforms by governments aiming for higher scores.
The nerve center of this enterprise is a modest red brick Tudor building across Beacon Street from the Chestnut Hill Campus. Visitors, especially from abroad, “are shocked,” says professor of education Ina V.S. Mullis, codirector of the operation along with Professor Michael O. Martin. “They think they’re lost. They expect a huge building.”
That’s because TIMSS and its less well-known counterpart, PIRLS—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which started in 2001 and last year tested some 300,000 children in 49 countries—are massive undertakings. “We’re the tip of the iceberg,” Mullis says of the 18-member staff headquartered on Beacon Street. The TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center (part of the Lynch School of Education) has a physical presence in 63 countries. During the 2011 testing cycle, its teams of “quality-control monitors”—retired teachers, education ministry officials, and other specialists—visited 10 percent of the 29,119 schools chosen for analysis by the Center; they administered the exams, checking that the schools followed the Center’s protocols (proctors must be present, for example, and students must sit a certain distance from one another).
The questions for both the TIMSS and PIRLS surveys are written by the Center staff together with international research teams, and hundreds of questions are tried out in pilot exams administered to sample groups.
In the TIMSS fourth-grade test, each student completes 48 to 56 math and science questions in 72 minutes (with a break halfway through), working in pencil in booklets designed by the Center. A recent fourth-grade test (the exact year is not public information) included the following question:
Al wanted to find out how much his cat weighed. He weighed himself and noted that the scale weighed 57 kg. He then stepped on the scale holding his cat and found that it read 62 kg. What was the weight of the cat in kilograms?
Before the December announcement of the survey results, the Center, on September 14, released the TIMSS 2011 Encyclopedia and the PIRLS 2011 Encyclopedia, each comprising two doorstop-thick volumes totaling roughly 2,000 pages. The encyclopedias, which are also published online, profile the education policies and curricula of participating countries. These reports, drafted within the respective nations in conjunction with Center staff, provide a context for answering often-asked questions about the test results, such as, “Why does Singapore do so well in math?” (“More linear equations,” says Mullis, and, as the encyclopedia makes plain, a rigorous curriculum, tough exams, and teachers who benefit from mentoring, professional development courses, and international study programs.)
The PIRLS 2011 profile of Hong Kong tells of efforts to involve parents in teaching children to read, “both for learning and for pleasure,” well before kindergarten. The back story, as related by Mullis and Martin, is that Hong Kong performed disappointingly in the 2001 reading assessments, much in contrast to its stellar math and science performance. That led officials to institute numerous reforms, including curricular changes that underscore the importance of looking for themes in written passages and drawing conclusions (skills tested by PIRLS), as distinct from memorizing details. Among other initiatives were workshops for parents on fashioning a good home environment for reading. In 2006, Hong Kong became one of the top-performing countries in that year’s PIRLS assessment.
The United States profile in TIMSS 2011 says plainly, if a bit understatedly, that by the late 1990s, “TIMSS became a standard policy citation to emphasize that U.S. student performance . . . was not leading the world.” According to the article, written by a team from the American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, the two signal education reforms—No Child Left Behind and the Education Sciences Reform Act, both instituted in 2002—came partly in response to lagging TIMSS scores.
The impetus for TIMSS stemmed from a goal set in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush for U.S. children to become the world’s highest math and science achievers by the year 2000 and from the consequent need to establish international benchmarks. Department of Education officials sought assistance from the Netherlands-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which had been carrying out cross-national studies since the 1950s.
At the time, a member of one of IEA’s advisory committees was a Boston College education professor named Albert Beaton. He arranged for the project to be based in Chestnut Hill and, in 1994, attracted Mullis and Martin (from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, and from the Educational Research Centre at St. Patrick’s College in Dublin, Ireland, respectively) to implement the program. The Center has also offered TIMSS Advanced for high school seniors on two occasions, and last year it introduced prePIRLS, a less difficult version of the reading tests, intended for developing countries.
The Bush goal has never been realized, although in 2007 the United States did crack the top 10 with its eighth-graders’ math performance, coming in ninth, behind the Russian Federation and ahead of Lithuania. That year U.S. fourth-graders placed eighth in science. More than 35,000 students in the United States took a TIMSS or PIRLS test in 2011.
The 2011 TIMSS/PIRLS reports are strictly embargoed until December 11, but Mullis offers this amuse-bouche: “By and large, there are more countries doing better than doing worse, especially at the fourth-grade level.”
In January 2013, the Boston College researchers will begin work on the next TIMSS. Together with their international partners, they’ll develop a scientifically random selection of schools and students, devise the questions for the two grade groups, test a sampling of questions with a representative subset of countries, and begin administering the exams in October 2014.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted that 900,000 students took the 2011 TIMSS. Six hundred thousand students took the 2011 TIMSS, and 300,000 the 2011 PIRLS.
Read more by William Bole