Math and Science Performance of Students at the Global Level

Math and Science Performance of Students at the Global Level[1]

Last week, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the seventh installment of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). TIMSS 2019 was conducted at the fourth and eighth grades in 64 countries and 8 benchmarking systems by 580,000 students. Inaugurated in 1995, TIMSS has been conducted every four years since, providing 24 years of trends in mathematics and science achievement. A few highlights are presented here.[2]

Grade 4

In grade 4 Math, the top performers, once again, came from East Asia: Singapore (with a score of 625), Hong Kong SAR (602), Korea, Rep. of (600), Chinese Taipei (599) and Japan (593). They were followed by European countries, led by the Russian Federation, but at 567 points, this is more than 50 points, or a half a standard deviation, behind the global leader, Singapore. This represents more than a year’s worth of learning. Other top performers include Northern Ireland (566), England (556), Ireland (548) and Latvia (546).

Some countries have shown tremendous progress over time.  In Grade 4 math, for example, since 1995, Portugal gained 83 points. This is almost two years’ worth of learning progress. The experience of Portugal’s reform is well documented by Nuno Crato, former Minister of Education, in Curriculum and Educational Reforms in Portugal: An Analysis on Why and How Students’ Knowledge and Skills Improved. Following dismal first results in TIMSS and PISA, the education system was reformed to pay increased attention to results, with a clear curriculum, increased school autonomy, regular assessment, vocational paths, and flexibility.

Other countries with large increases since 1995 include England (72) and Cyprus (57). While England’s reforms are well known, it would be worth studying Cyprus’ experience. Other large increases occurred since 2003: Armenia (42) and the Russian Federation (35). Since 2007: Czech Republic (47) and Georgia (44). Since 2011: Azerbaijan (52) and Armenia (46).

In Grade 4 Science, the top performers are: Singapore (595), Korea (588), Russia (567), Japan (562), Chinese Taipei (558), Finland (555), Latvia (542), Norway (539), the United States (539) and Lithuania (538). (Moscow City, a benchmarking participant, scored 595.) They are followed by Finland (555), Latvia (542), Norway (539) and Lithuania (538).

The region has seen some large increases, including, since 1995, Cyprus with a 61-point gain and Portugal adding 52 points. Since 2003, the Russian Federation increased its grade 4 science score by 41 points. Since 2007, Georgia increased by 36 points. Since 2011, Armenia increased by 50 points. Since 2015, Cyprus improved by 30 points.

Armenia’s significant improvement come at a time when the Bank noted a high level of Learning Poverty. However, reform efforts are finally paying off. Over the decade, Armenia has focused on assessment, supported in part by Russian Trust Fund activities (READ) designed to enhance the country’s capacity in student assessment. The National Assessment and Testing Center (ATC) carried out research and published articles and books on assessment, and intensified its collaboration with schools.

Several countries in the region recorded low scores. Among these were several Wester Balkan countries. Despite their improvement over time, Armenia and Georgia are scoring below the TIMSS mid-point. Fortunately, reform efforts there and Bank assistance is on-going. Our recently approved operation in North Macedonia and on-going support in Kosovo should help address learning needs. In Bosnia, we have an ongoing dialogue on education reform. On the other hand, Serbia is scoring above Spain and France, and Albania has surpassed France, albeit slightly. Looking at grade 4 math, several high-income countries – including, Bahrain, France, Kuwait, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are scoring below the TIMSS average. The rest of the Western Balkan countries are performing better or as well as: Chile, Iran, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Grade 8

In Grade 8 Math, the top performers are from East Asia. In grade 8 math, Singapore led the way with 608 points, Taipei at 574, Japan at 570 and Korea at 561. These were followed by the Russian Federation (543), Ireland (524), Lithuania (520), Israel (519) and Australia (517).

The most-improved performance in the world in grade 8 math since 2015 is Turkey with a 38-point gain in math (and 22 points in grade 8 science). This is most likely due to eventual success of reforms beginning in 2005, and again in 2013 and 2017. The Ministry of National Education (MoNE) credits the establishment of measurement and evaluation centers in each province and the development of standards. Improved teaching and digital content is also credited (via the EBA – which the Bank is supporting in the Government’s COVID-19 response). Other factors may include physical improvements in learning environments.

Other big improvements in TIMSS since 2011 include: Turkey, with a 44-point gain; Georgia at 30 points and Romania with 21 points. Since 2011, Cyprus improved grade 8 math scores by 42 points and the Russian Federation by 35. Since 2007, Georgia gained 51 points in grade 8 math. Overall, Cyprus’ positive trends seem to suggest that reform efforts are starting to bear fruit. The positive trends in Georgia are a continuation of a trend that goes back several years; still, as the OECD finds, Georgia needs to strive for equitable performance across all population groups going forward.

TIMSS began in 1995. Since then, biggest improvements for grade 8 math include:

In Grade 8 Science, the top performers are: Singapore at 608, Chinese Taipei at 574, Japan at 570, Korea at 561, Russian Federation at 543, Finland at 543, and Lithuania at 534.

Since 1995, in grade 8 science, Lithuania has recorded a 70-point increase. Since 2011, Turkey has seen a 32-point gain, Georgia 27 points, and Lithuania 20 points. Cyprus has seen a 43-point rise since 2003.

Russia’s improvement and high performance in both subjects and grades is worth reflecting on. The country prioritizes the preparation of mathematics teachers, especially for students with low family academic resources. Also, the use of assessments and exams, and increased attention to poor performers has led to reductions in inequalities, for example, between rural and urban, rich and poor. Other factors may include reforms implemented in the early 2000s, such as liberalization of the textbook market, diversification of the primary school curricula, and growth in innovative pedagogy across Russia. The comprehensive reform of the student assessment system is important for understanding the country’s results. It is also a lesson for other countries.

Going Forward

As Carnoy and others have said, important international studies such as TIMSS are useful in identifying broad trends, but there is no substitute for careful causal inference analysis carried out in a country or region in order to determine what works in those contexts to improve student learning. We will produce two-pagers using the micro-date in the New Year, followed by country analyses in the course of our analytical work program.

The microdata and context questionnaires will allow for more in-depth analysis of related areas such as home environment, school and classroom contexts, and attitudes towards learning. Also, we can analyze trends more systematically through our country dialogue, analytical work, and projects.

It is also worth keeping in mind that these scores refer to the period before the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures. They serve as a benchmark as we look towards the next round. Hopefully, learning recovery efforts and much-needed reforms will allow us to see gains in the next release.


[1] Prepared by the ECA Education Team.

[2] Data from: https://timss2019.org/reports/download-center/.

Categories COVID, Education, Human capital, Returns to education, TIMSS

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