IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

New International Data Show Large and Widening Gaps Between High- and Low-Performing U.S. 4th- and 8th-Graders in Mathematics and Science

NCES recently released results from the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). TIMSS tests students in grades 4 and 8 in mathematics and science every 4 years. The results show that

  • Across both subjects and grades, the United States scored, on average, in the top quarter of the education systems that took part in TIMSS 2019.
    • Among the 64 education systems that participated at grade 4, the United States ranked 15th and 8th in average mathematics and science scores, respectively.
    • Among the 46 education systems that participated at grade 8, the United States ranked 11th in average scores for both subjects.
  • On average, U.S. scores did not change significantly between the 2011 and 2019 rounds of TIMSS.

Average scores are one measure of achievement in national and international studies. However, they provide a very narrow perspective on student performance. One way to look more broadly is to examine differences in scores (or “score gaps”) between high-performing students and low-performing students. Score gaps between high performers and low performers can be one indication of equity within an education system. Here, high performers are those who scored in the 90th percentile (or top 10 percent) within their education system, and low performers are those who scored in the 10th percentile (or bottom 10 percent) within their education system.

In 2019, while some education systems had a higher average TIMSS score than the United States, none of these education systems had a wider score gap between their high and low performers than the United States. This was true across both subjects and grades.

Figure 1 shows an example of these findings using the grade 8 mathematics data. The figure shows that 17 education systems had average scores that were higher or not statistically different from the U.S. average score.

  • Of these 17 education systems, 13 had smaller score gaps between their high and low performers than the United States. The score gaps in 4 education systems (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, the Republic of Korea, and Israel) were not statistically different from the score gap in the United States.
  • The score gaps between the high and low performers in these 17 education systems ranged from 170 points in Quebec, Canada, to 259 points in Israel. The U.S. score gap was 256 points.
  • If you are interested in the range in the score gaps for all 46 education systems in the TIMSS 2019 grade 8 mathematics assessment, see Figure M2b of the TIMSS 2019 U.S. Highlights Web Report, released in December 2020. This report also includes these results for grade 8 science and both subjects at the grade 4 level.

Figure 1. Average scores and 90th to 10th percentile score gaps of grade 8 students on the TIMSS mathematics scale, by education system: 2019

NOTE: This figure presents only those education systems whose average scores were similar to or higher than the U.S. average score. Scores are reported on a scale of 0 to 1,000 with a TIMSS centerpoint of 500 and standard deviation of 100.

SOURCE: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), 2019.


From 2011 to 2019, U.S. average scores did not change significantly. However, the scores of low performers decreased, and score gaps between low and high performers grew wider in both subjects and grades. In addition, at grade 8, there was an increase in the scores of high performers in mathematics and science over the same period. These two changes contributed to the widening gaps at grade 8.

Figure 2 shows these results for the U.S. grade 8 mathematics data. Average scores in 2011 and 2019 were not significantly different. However, the score of high performers increased from 607 to 642 points between 2011 and 2019, while the score of low performers decreased from 409 to 385 points. As a result, the score gap widened from 198 to 256 points between 2011 and 2019. In addition, the 2019 score gap for grade 8 mathematics is significantly wider than the gaps for all previous administrations of TIMSS.


Figure 2. Trends in average scores and selected percentile scores of U.S. grade 8 students on the TIMSS mathematics scale: Selected years, 1995 to 2019

* p < .05. Significantly different from the 2019 estimate at the .05 level of statistical significance.

NOTE: Scores are reported on a scale of 0 to 1,000 with a TIMSS centerpoint of 500 and standard deviation of 100.

SOURCE: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019.


These TIMSS findings provide insights regarding equity within the U.S. and other education systems. Similar results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that mathematics scores at both grades 4 and 8 decreased or did not change significantly between 2009 and 2019 for lower performing students, while scores increased for higher performing students. More national and international research on the gap between high- and low-performing students could help inform important education policy decisions that aim to address these growing performance gaps.

To learn more about TIMSS and the 2019 U.S. and international results, check out the TIMSS 2019 U.S. Highlights Web Report and the TIMSS 2019 International Results in Mathematics and Science. A recording is also available for a RISE Webinar from February 24, 2021 (What Do TIMSS and NAEP Tell Us About Gaps Between High- and Low-Performing 4th and 8th Graders?) that explores these topics further. 

 

By Katie Herz, AIR; Marissa Hall, AIR; and Lydia Malley, NCES

New International Data Identify “Resilient” Students in Financial Literacy

NCES recently released the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 assessment of financial literacy. This assessment measured 15-year-old students’ knowledge and understanding of financial concepts, products, and risks and their ability to apply that knowledge to real-life situations. It found that, on average, U.S. students performed similarly to their peers across the 12 other participating Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. 

The assessment also found that 12 percent of U.S. students performed at the highest level of proficiency (level 5). Performance at this level indicates that students can apply their understanding of financial terms and concepts to analyze complex financial products, solve nonroutine financial problems, and describe potential outcomes of financial decisions in the big picture.[1] The U.S. percentage was again similar to the OECD average.

However, this analysis also identified a group of students who might be considered “resilient.” In education research, resilience is defined as the ability to perform well academically despite coming from the disadvantaged backgrounds that have more commonly been associated with lower performance.

High-performing students came from across the spectrum of school poverty levels, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL).[2] In particular, 7 percent of high-performing students in financial literacy came from the highest poverty schools (figure 1).


Figure 1. Percentage distribution of U.S. 15-year-olds in public schools scoring below level 2 and at level 5 of proficiency on the PISA financial literacy scale, by percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) at their school: 2018

NOTE: Data for percentage of students eligible for FRPL were available for public schools only. An individual student’s level of poverty may vary within schools. Detail may not sum to totals due to rounding.

SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2018.


It is these 7 percent of students who could be considered “resilient” and may be of interest for further study. For example, research could identify if there are factors that are associated with their high performance when compared to their lower performing peers in similar schools. Research on academically resilient students that used eighth-grade data from TIMSS found, for example, that having high educational aspirations increased the likelihood that students with few home education resources performed at or above the TIMSS Intermediate international benchmark in mathematics.[3] Experiencing less bullying also increased this likelihood.

Examining the “resilient” PISA financial literacy students more closely could also determine the extent to which their individual backgrounds are related to performance. This would be of interest because, even within high-poverty schools, students’ individual circumstances may vary. 

Patterns in Other PISA Subjects

There are similar subsets of “resilient” students in the other PISA 2018 subjects (table 1). Eight percent of high performers in reading were from the highest poverty schools, as were 5 percent of high performers in mathematics and 7 percent of high performers in science.


Table 1. Percentage of U.S. 15-year-olds in public schools scoring at or above level 5 of proficiency, by PISA subject and their schools’ free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) status: 2018

[Standard errors appear in parentheses]

NOTE: Results are scaled separately; thus, percentages cannot be compared across subjects. Level 5 is the highest level of proficiency in financial literacy; levels 5 and 6 are the highest levels of proficiency in the other PISA subjects. Data for students eligible for FRPL were available for public schools only.

SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2018.


For more information on the PISA 2018 results in financial literacy and other subjects, visit the NCES International Activities website. To create customized data and charts using PISA and other international assessment data, use the International Data Explorer.

 

By Maria Stephens, AIR


[2] Data for students eligible for FRPL are available for public schools only.

[3] Students at the Intermediate international benchmark can apply basic mathematical knowledge in a variety of situations, and those above this benchmark can do so in increasingly complex situations and, at the highest end, reason with information, draw conclusions, make generalizations, and solve linear equations.

NCES's Top Hits of 2020

As we wrap up what has been an unprecedented year in many ways, we’re taking a look back at some of NCES’s most popular content from 2020. As you reflect on the past year, we hope you’ll explore our most downloaded reports, most visited indicators, Fast Facts, and blog posts, and most viewed tweets over the past year. 

 

Top Five Reports, by number of PDF downloads

1. Condition of Education 2020 (7,328)

2Digest of Education Statistics 2018 (4,936)

3. Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018 (3,379)

4. Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2019 (2,994)

5. First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes (2,382)

 

Top Five indicators from the Condition of Education, by number of web sessions

1. Students With Disabilities (82,304)

2. Public High School Graduation Rates (66,993)

3. Education Expenditures by Country (61,766)

4. English Language Learners in Public Schools (46,293)

5. Undergraduate Enrollment (46,766)

 

Top Five Fast Facts, by number of web sessions

1. Back to School Statistics (214,148)

2. Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities (111,491)

3. College and University Endowments (78,735)

4. Degrees Conferred by Race and Sex (73,980)

5. Closed Schools (69,142)

 

Top Five Blog Posts, by number of web sessions

1. Introducing the 2020 Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) and Its Website (7,822)

2. Back to School by the Numbers: 2019–20 School Year (4,400)

3. Free or Reduced Price Lunch: A Proxy for Poverty? (4,199)

4. Educational Attainment Differences by Students’ Socioeconomic Status (2,919)

5. The Digital Divide: Differences in Home Internet Access (2,699)

 

Top Five Tweets, by number of impressions

1. Teacher Appreciation Day (21,146)

 

2. International Education Week (18,333)

 

3. Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2019 (17,383)

 

4. International Early Learning Study 2018 Pilot (10,870)

 

5. NAEP Data Training Workshop (10,782)

 

Be sure to check our blog site and the NCES website to stay up-to-date on new findings and trends in 2021. You can also follow NCES on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for daily updates and content.

Teaching with Technology: U.S. Teachers’ Perceptions and Use of Digital Technology in an International Context

The coronavirus pandemic forced teachers across the world to immediately transition instruction to a virtual setting in early 2020. To understand U.S. teachers’ level of preparedness for this shift in an international context, this blog examines recent international data from U.S. teachers’ responses to questions on the following topics:

  • Their perceptions of information and communications technologies (ICT) resources
  • Their use of ICT for instruction prior to the pandemic

In general, the results suggest that U.S. teachers are more resourced in ICT than their international peers, and they use ICT at a similar frequency at school when teaching.

 

Teachers’ perceptions of ICT resources at their school

The quantity and quality of ICT resources available in school systems prior to the coronavirus pandemic may impact teachers’ access to such resources for instructional purposes while classrooms are functioning in a virtual format. The United States participated in the 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), which asked questions about ICT resources to a nationally representative sample of eighth-grade teachers from 14 education systems.

The results from this study show that 86 percent of eighth-grade teachers both in the United States and across ICILS 2018 education systems “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that ICT is considered a priority for use in teaching (figure 1). Compared with the ICILS 2018
averages,[1] higher percentages of U.S. eighth-grade teachers “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with various statements about the use of ICT.

While 86 percent of U.S. eighth-grade teachers “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “ICT is considered a priority for use in teaching,” only 61 percent “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “there is sufficient opportunity for me to develop expertise in ICT” (figure 1). Additionally, 62 percent of U.S. eighth-grade teachers “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “there is enough time to prepare lessons that incorporate ICT.” These disparities may have had an impact on teacher capacity during the sudden shift to 100 percent online learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which would be a good topic for future research and analyses.  


Figure 1. Percentage of eighth-grade teachers who reported that they “strongly agree” or “agree” with statements about using ICT in teaching at school, by statement: 2018

p < .05. Significantly different from the U.S. estimate at the .05 level of statistical significance.

¹ Did not meet the guidelines for a sample participation rate of 85 percent and not included in the international average.
² National Defined Population covers 90 to 95 percent of National Target Population.
NOTE: ICT = information and communications technologies. The ICILS 2018 average is the average of all participating education systems meeting international technical standards, with each education system weighted equally. Statements are ordered by the percentages of U.S. teachers reporting “strongly agree” or “agree” from largest to smallest.
SOURCE: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), The International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), 2018. Modified reproduction of figure 17 from U.S. Results from the 2018 ICILS Web Report.


Teachers’ perceptions of the use of ICT for instruction

Teachers’ views on the role of ICT in virtual instruction during the coronavirus pandemic are not yet clear. However, in 2018, when instruction was conducted in physical classrooms, most U.S. eighth-grade teachers participating in ICILS expressed positive perceptions about “using ICT in teaching and learning at school,” as did many teachers internationally.

Among eighth-grade teachers in the United States, 95 percent agreed that ICT “enables students to access better sources of information,” 92 percent agreed that ICT “helps students develop greater interest in learning,” and 92 percent agreed that ICT “helps students work at a level appropriate to their learning needs.” On average across other education systems participating in ICILS, at least 85 percent of teachers agreed with each of these statements (Fraillon et al. 2019).

Seventy-five percent of U.S. eighth-grade teachers in 2018 agreed that ICT “improves academic performance of students,” which was higher than the ICILS international average of 71 percent. The percentages of teachers who agreed with this statement varied across education systems, from three-quarters or more of teachers in Chile, Denmark, Kazakhstan, and Portugal to less than half of teachers in Finland and North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany).

 

Frequency of teachers’ use of ICT

Teachers’ reported use of ICT for instruction in physical classroom settings may provide insight into their level of experience as they transition to virtual settings during the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2018, half of U.S. eighth-grade teachers reported “using ICT at school when teaching” every day, which was not significantly different from the ICILS average of 48 percent. However, the U.S. percentage was lower than the percentages of teachers in Moscow (76 percent), Denmark (72 percent), and Finland (57 percent) (figure 2).


Figure 2. Percentage of eighth-grade teachers who reported using ICT at school every day when teaching, by education system: 2018

p < .05. Significantly different from the U.S. estimate at the .05 level of statistical significance.
¹ Met guidelines for sample participation rates only after replacement schools were included.
² National Defined Population covers 90 to 95 percent of National Target Population.
³ Did not meet the guidelines for a sample participation rate of 85 percent and not included in the international average.
⁴ Data collected at the beginning of the school year.
NOTE: ICT = information and communications technologies. The ICILS 2018 average is the average of all participating education systems meeting international technical standards, with each education system weighted equally. Education systems are ordered by their percentages of teachers reporting using ICT at school when teaching from largest to smallest. Italics indicate the benchmarking participants.
SOURCE: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), The International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), 2018. Modified reproduction of figure 15 from U.S. Results from the 2018 ICILS Web Report.


For more information on teachers and technology, check out NCES’s ICILS 2018 website, the international ICILS website, and the earlier NCES blog “New Study on U.S. Eighth-Grade Students’ Computer Literacy.”

 

By Amy Rathbun, AIR, and Stephen Provasnik, NCES

 


[1] The ICILS average is the average of all participating education systems meeting international technical standards, with each education system weighted equally. The United States did not meet the guidelines for a sample participation rate of 85 percent, so it is not included in the international average.

 

Reference

Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., and Duckworth, D. (2019). Preparing for Life in a Digital World: IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study 2018 International Report. Amsterdam: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Announcing the Condition of Education 2020 Release

NCES is pleased to present The Condition of Education 2020, an annual report mandated by the U.S. Congress that summarizes the latest data on education in the United States. This report uses data from across the center and from other sources and is designed to help policymakers and the public monitor educational progress. This year’s report includes 47 indicators on topics ranging from prekindergarten through postsecondary education, as well as labor force outcomes and international comparisons.

The data show that 50.7 million students were enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools (prekindergarten through grade 12) and approximately 5.7 million students were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools in fall 2017, the most recent year for which data were available. In school year 2017–18, some 85 percent of public high school students graduated on time with a regular diploma. This rate was similar to the previous year’s rate. About 2.2 million, or 69 percent, of those who completed high school in 2018, enrolled in college that fall. Meanwhile, the status dropout rate, or the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who were not enrolled in school and did not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, was 5.3 percent in 2018.

Total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2018 stood at 16.6 million students. The average net price of college for first-time, full-time undergraduates attending 4-year institutions was $13,700 at public institutions, $27,000 at private nonprofit institutions, and $22,100 at private for-profit institutions (in constant 2018–19 dollars). In the same year, institutions awarded 1.0 million associate’s degrees, 2.0 million bachelor’s degrees, 820,000 master’s degrees, and 184,000 doctor’s degrees.

Ninety-two percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States had a high school diploma or its equivalent in 2018. In comparison, the average rate for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries was 85 percent. Some 49 percent of these individuals in the United States had obtained a postsecondary degree, compared with the OECD average of 44 percent. Similar to previous years, annual median earnings in 2018 were higher for 25- to 34-year-olds with higher levels of education. In 2018, U.S. 25- to 34-year-olds with a bachelor’s or higher degree earned 66 percent more than those with a high school diploma or equivalent.

The Condition of Education includes an Executive Summary, an At a Glance section, a Reader’s Guide, a Glossary, and a Guide to Sources, all of which provide additional background information. Each indicator includes references to the source data tables used to produce the indicator.

As new data are released throughout the year, indicators will be updated and made available on The Condition of Education website

In addition to publishing The Condition of Education, NCES produces a wide range of other reports and datasets designed to help inform policymakers and the public about significant trends and topics in education. More information about the latest activities and releases at NCES may be found on our website or at our social media sites on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

 

By James L. Woodworth, NCES Commissioner