What an International Standardized Exam Is Telling Us

Emma Brown of the Washington Post shares in "U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam" results from the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. The article cites David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, who says, "...he is now hopeful that new science standards that have been adopted by a growing number of states — and that push students to solve problems and learn about science by doing science — will make a difference, prompting bigger gains in the coming years." Such observation, of course, naturally comes if one only looks at the average scores, and not considering what the exam is all about. It is always easy to point one's finger at the curriculum or how a subject is being taught. But this is wrong. The TIMSS exam is content-based and curriculum coverage is more or less similar across the countries participating in the exam. The curriculum is the least important factor in this exam.

But one does not need to look deeper into the exam results. One simply has to assume a wider perspective. First, it is not just the average that counts, the distribution is very important. For example, below is the distribution of scores for the 4th grade science test.

Above copied from TIMSS 2015
The United States has a wider distribution than Finland does. From the above chart, one can see that countries with wider distributions also have lower average scores. Equity is therefore important.

The TIMSS report also comes with an analysis of scores that provides correlations with various factors. The following are factors observed to correlate strongly with 4th grade science scores. Similar conclusions are reached with the math scores.

First, socio-economic status correlates with scores:

Second, scores also correlate with resource shortages in textbooks, supplies, classrooms, heating and cooling systems.

Third, scores correlate with student attendance.

Fourth, when students' basic needs (nutrition, sleep, disability needs, classroom management) are not met, scores likewise are lower.

Lastly, preschool education also correlates with scores.

It is not the curriculum. And it is not technology:

We may never be able to tackle the challenges of education if we keep ignoring what is actually important. It is equity and it also requires meeting the basic needs of every student.