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Institute of Education Sciences

America’s Advanced Mathematics and Physics Students in a Global Context

By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, Institute of Education Sciences

In today’s increasingly global economy, there is a lot of interest in understanding how students in the United States (U.S.) are performing compared to their peers around the world. That is why the National Center for Education Statistics participates in and conducts several international assessments. One of those assessments—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Advanced—gives us a unique opportunity to see how our advanced students are performing in rigorous mathematics and physics classes as they complete high school. TIMSS Advanced is part of a broader data collection that also assesses the performance of 4th- and 8th-grade students in mathematics and science, the results of which are summarized in another blog entry.

The TIMSS Advanced 2015 was administered to students from nine education systems that were in their final year of secondary school who had taken or were taking advanced mathematics or physics courses. In the U.S., the TIMSS Advanced was given to over 5,500 students in Grade 12 who were taking or had taken advanced mathematics courses covering topics in geometry, algebra and calculus, or a second-year physics course. The last time that the U.S. participated in TIMSS Advanced was 1995.

What Percentage of Students Take Advanced Mathematics and Physics?

Among the nine education systems participating in TIMSS Advanced 2015, the percentage of the corresponding age cohort (18-year-olds in the U.S.) taking advanced mathematics varies widely. This percentage, which TIMSS calls the “coverage index,” ranges from a low of 1.9 percent to a high of 34.4 percent. The U.S. falls in the middle, with 11.4 percent of 18-year-olds taking advanced mathematics courses.  The U.S. advanced mathematics coverage index in 2015 has nearly doubled since 1995, when it was 6.4 percent.

In the U.S. and two other participating systems—Portugal and Russian Federation—the students taking advanced mathematics were split fairly evenly between male and female. In the remaining systems, the students in the coverage index were majority male, except for Slovenia, where 60 percent were female. Interestingly, Slovenia had the highest coverage index, at 34.4 percent.

It’s a different story in science for the U.S. Among 18-year-olds in the U.S., 4.8 percent took Physics, which was among the lowest for the nine systems participating in TIMSS Advanced. Only Lebanon (3.9 percent) had a lower percentage, while France had the highest coverage index at 21.5 percent. Males made up a majority of physics students in all nine participating systems, including the U.S. 

How Did U.S. Students Perform in Advanced Mathematics?

U.S. students scored 485 on TIMSS Advanced 2015 in advanced mathematics, which is not significantly different from the average U.S. score in 1995. It should be noted that on TIMSS 2015, given to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders across the U.S., mathematics scores for both grades increased significantly from 1995 to 2015.

On TIMSS Advanced 2015 in advanced mathematics, two systems scored significantly higher than the U.S. (Lebanon and Russian Federation students who took intensive courses[1]) while five systems scored significantly lower (Norway, Sweden, France, Italy and Slovenia). The remaining two systems scored about the same as the U.S.

How Did U.S. Students Perform in Physics?

U.S. students scored 437 on TIMSS Advanced 2015 in physics, which was not statistically different than in 1995. No education system did better on physics in 2015 than 1995, but several did worse—four of the six systems that took the TIMSS Advanced in both 1995 and 2015 saw a significant drop in their scores.

Four of the nine countries participating in TIMSS Advanced 2015 in physics had a score that was significantly higher than the U.S. (Russian Federation, Portugal, Norway, and Slovenia) and three countries scored significantly lower than the U.S. (Lebanon, Italy and France). Sweden’s physics score was not significantly different than the U.S. 

A Note about Interpretation

It’s important to remember that there are differences in student characteristics and the structure of the various education systems that participated in TIMSS Advanced 2015. Those differences should be kept in mind when interpreting results. 


[1] Intensive courses are advanced mathematics courses that involve 6 or more hours per week. Results for students in these courses are reported separately from the results for other students from the Russian Federation taking courses that involve 4.5 hours per week. 

New Data From the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

How do U.S. students compare to their international peers? A look at the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study at 4th and 8th-grade

By Lydia Malley

In today’s interconnected world, it is important to understand the skills of students in the U.S. relative to their international peers. To this end, NCES participates in a number of international assessments. Results from one of these assessments, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), were released on November 29th. Our new report, Highlights from TIMSS and TIMSS Advanced 2015, compares the mathematics and science performance of U.S. fourth- and eighth-grade to that of their peers in over 60 countries or education systems across 6 continents. This report also presents results from TIMSS Advanced, which assessed the advanced mathematics and physics knowledge and skills of twelfth-graders in 9 countries. The results from TIMSS Advanced are discussed more in depth in another blog post.

 

TIMSS results show that the mathematic scores of U.S. fourth- and eighth-grade students have improved over time, while science scores have held relatively steady. TIMSS is designed to measure trends in mathematics and science achievement. Conducted every 4 years, TIMSS 2015 represents the sixth such study since TIMSS was first conducted in 1995.

Among the report’s key findings:

Fourth-grade mathematics:

  • Fourth-grade mathematics performance in the United States has improved since 1995.
  • Among 54 education systems that participated in the most recent TIMSS, average scores in 10 systems were higher than the U.S. average, 9 education systems were not measurably different from the U.S. average, and average scores in 34 systems were lower than the U.S. average.

Eighth-grade mathematics:

  • The eighth-grade average mathematics score of the United States in 2015 was higher than in any prior administration of TIMSS, since the first administration in 1995.
  • Among 43 education systems, average scores in 8 systems were higher than the U.S. average, 10 education systems were not measurably different from the U.S. average, and average scores in 24 systems were lower than the U.S. average.

Fourth-grade science:

  • Fourth-grade science performance in the United States in 2015 was not measurably different from the performance in 1995 or 2011.
  • Among 53 education systems that participated in the 2015 TIMSS, average scores in 7 systems were higher than the U.S. average, 7 education systems were not measurably different from the U.S. average, and average scores in 38 systems were lower than the U.S. average.

Eighth-grade science: U.S. eighth-graders’ average science score increased between 1995 and 2015, although the scores in the most recent years (2011 and 2015) were not measurably different.

  • Among 43 education systems, in 2015 average scores in 7 systems were higher than the U.S. average, in 9 education systems the average scores were not measurably different from the U.S. average, and average scores in 26 systems were lower than the U.S. average.

Results by Gender:

  • Males scored 7 points higher than females in fourth-grade mathematics, and eighth-grade mathematics scores for males and females were not measurably different.
  • Males scored four points higher than females in fourth-grade science and five points higher in eighth-grade science.



TIMSS is designed to align broadly with mathematics and science curricula in the participating education systems and, therefore, to reflect students’ school-based learning. TIMSS also collects information about educational contexts (such as students’ schools and teachers) that may be related to students’ achievement.

The full report is available at https://nces.ed.gov/timss/. In addition, TIMSS results are now easier than ever to access, with more than 60 tables and figures, reports, detailed descriptions of the assessments, technical notes and more available on the TIMSS 2015 website, at http://nces.ed.gov/timss/timss2015/.

TIMSS and TIMSS Advanced are sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and managed in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education.

Education at a Glance 2016: Situating Education Data in a Global Context

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

Putting educational and economic outcomes in the United States within a global context can help researchers, policy makers, and the public understand how individuals in the U.S. compare to their peers internationally.  Education at a Glance, an annual publication produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), provides data on the structure, finances and progress of education systems in the 35 OECD countries, including  the U.S., as well as a number of partner countries. This type of data is important to understand as our students compete in an increasingly global society.

The recently released 2016 edition of the report indicates that the U.S. is above the average on some measures, but there are others presented in the report in which the U.S. lags behind our international peers.

For instance, the share of U.S. adults with a postsecondary education remains above the OECD average. In the U.S., 45 percent of adults, ages 25-64, have at least some postsecondary education, which is 10 percentage points above the OECD average. However, this advantage is shrinking because the postsecondary enrollment in other OECD countries is increasing more rapidly than in the U.S., where enrollment rates have begun to level off.

The United States continues to be a global leader in attracting international students to attend our postsecondary institutions at the postbaccalaureate level. In 2014, international students made up only 3.5 percent of students enrolled in bachelor’s or equivalent programs, compared with 9% in master’s or equivalent programs and 35% in doctoral or equivalent programs. The U.S., along with the United Kingdom and France, attract more than half of master's and doctoral international students worldwide.

In terms of labor market outcomes, gender disparities in earnings are wider in the U.S. than the OECD average. Among adults in the U.S. with postsecondary education, women earn only 68% of what men earn. This gender gap is larger than the gap for all other OECD countries except Brazil, Chile, Israel, Mexico and the Slovak Republic. Similar gaps exist for males and females in the U.S. across all levels of education.

This is just a small slice of the information that can be found in Education at a Glance 2016. You can also find a wealth of other data on topics of perennial interest, such as the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education programs; working conditions of teachers, including time spent in the classroom and salary data; and education finance and per-student expenditures. A relatively new feature is an international comparison for states and other subnational units on key education indicators.

Browse the full report to see how the U.S. compares to other countries on these important education-related topics.

Exploring a range of educational outcomes within and across countries: Sub-national data supplement to Education at a Glance 2015

By Lauren Musu-Gillette and Tom Snyder

Situating educational and economic outcomes in the United States within a global context can help researchers, policy makers, and the public understand how individuals in the U.S. compare to their peers internationally. The annual publication Education at a Glance produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides information on the state of education in many countries across the world. While these data are instrumental in helping us to understand how the U.S. compares to other OECD and partner countries on a number of key educational and economic outcomes, national averages can mask the high degree of variation that can occur within individual countries. In order to address this, several OECD and partner countries, including the U.S., provided sub-national data on several select indicators previously only available at the country level.   

These data, posted on the NCES website, serve as a supplement to Education at a Glance 2015 and provide select sub-national data for six indicators in this edition. These include data on educational attainment by selected age groups, employment rates by educational attainment, annual expenditure per student, enrollment rates by age, enrollment rates in early childhood and primary education, and enrollment rates and work status of 15-29 year-olds.

In order to understand the amount of variability in an indicator for a particular country, we can compute a ratio of the state, territory, or region with the highest percentage to that with the lowest percentage on any given metric. For example, within the United States, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who completed any level of postsecondary education in 2013 ranged among the states from 30 percent in Nevada to 55 percent in Massachusetts.

The ratio of high to low percentages of 25- to 34-year-olds completing postsecondary education in the United States (2.4) was among the largest of the reporting countries.  The ratio was higher in Brazil (5.8) with a range of 6 to 31 percent, and in Spain (2.8), with a range from 21 to 58 percent. The U.S. ratio was slightly higher than in Canada and Russia (both 2.3).  The ratio was lower in Sweden (1.8) and lowest in Slovenia (1.0), Ireland (1.2), and Belgium (1.2). The high to low ratio between OECD countries was 2.8, ranging from a low of 24 percent to a high of 68 percent.


Average percentage of the 25-34 year old population with postsecondary education (with subnational high/low value) in selected OECD and partner countries: 2014

NOTE: Countries are ranked in ascending order of the average percentage of the 25-34 year old population with postsecondary education. Data years differ. Data for Canada is from 2012, while data for the United States and Brazil is from 2013. Data for all other countries is from 2014.

SOURCE: OECD. Table A1.3a. See Annex 3 for notes and sub-national Summary Table A1.3a.


Regional policy makers can benefit most from the comparisons presented in Education at a Glance when they can compare the results from their own sub-national areas with national and sub-national data from other countries. It is not surprising that large federal countries, such as Canada, Germany, and the United States, in which education is largely controlled by regional authorities, might have large internal variations. But, many other countries with centralized education systems such as Spain and Sweden have substantial variations within their countries as well. These new sub-national data can help illuminate these differences and provide additional information to U.S. states on how they compare to their peers both within the U.S. and internationally. 

Behind the degree: Direct measures of cognitive skills or reports of highest degree earned

By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla

Categories of educational attainment – or highest degree earned – are often used in social science research as an indicator of a person’s knowledge and skills. This measure is objective and readily available, easily understood by survey respondents as well as by consumers of research and survey data, strongly tied to policies (such as those promoting high school graduation and college completion rates), and widely used in the labor market by employers. Moreover, strong connections between educational attainment and positive life outcomes, such as employment, earnings, health, and civic engagement, are well established.

Yet, this measure is an imprecise indicator of the amount of knowledge and skills an individual acquired during the years of education it took to complete the degree. It also masks variation across individuals and programs of study. In addition, adults continue to acquire skills and knowledge from a variety of sources and activities over their lifetimes after completing a degree, while on the job or through employer-sponsored training, continuing education, family and household management, hobbies and interests, etc. Adults also lose fluency with skills that are not put to regular use.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey[i] provides direct measures of working-age adults’ cognitive skills based on their performance on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving tasks set in real-life contexts. Performance is reported on a scale of 1-5 for literacy and numeracy and a scale of 1-3 for problem solving. It pairs these measures with a background questionnaire that asks about the use of skills at work and in daily life, work history, and other social, behavioral, and demographic indicators.


Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012

# Rounds to zero
NOTE: Percentages of adults age 16 to 65 by highest level of educational attainment appear in parentheses. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012.


The direct measures of cognitive skills offer researchers the ability to study actual skills rather than only using attainment of a particular degree as a general indicator of skills, and to investigate how those assessed skills relate to behaviors and life outcomes. To illustrate how directly measured skills and educational attainment are not always aligned, we can compare direct performance to highest degrees earned. In the United States, of all adults who have attained only a high school degree, 20% performed in the lowest levels (Level 1 and Below Level 1) of literacy, while 7% of adults with an associate’s degree and 5% of those with a bachelor’s degree performed at this level. At the same time, the results showed that 6% of adults with no more than a high school diploma, 14% with only an associate’s degree, and 24% with a bachelor’s degree have very high literacy skills, at Level 4 or 5 on the same scale. See the full range of educational attainment and skill performance in literacy in the chart above.

Findings such as this can help inform policy, interventions, and communication strategies to better meet the needs of the recipients.

To read more about direct measures versus educational attainment, see Chapter 8 of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – Reader's Companion.


[i] The PIAAC survey is coordinated internationally by the OECD. NCES implements PIAAC in the United States. Results were first released in October 2013 with data from 23 countries. It is a household survey administered by trained data collectors to a nationally-representative sample of adults, ages 16 through 65, in each country, in the official language(s), and in most cases, in respondents’ homes on a laptop computer.

In the United States, the survey was first administered in 2012 and additional results, based on an expanded sample, will be released in 2015-2016. To learn more about the U.S. administration and reporting of the survey, as well as related data tools, see https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.