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.

New International Comparisons of Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy Assessments

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a study of 15-year-old students’ performance in reading, mathematics, and science literacy that is conducted every 3 years. The PISA 2018 results provide us with a global view of U.S. students’ performance compared with their peers in nearly 80 countries and education systems. In PISA 2018, the major domain was reading literacy, although mathematics and science literacy were also assessed.

In 2018, the U.S. average score of 15-year-olds in reading literacy (505) was higher than the average score of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries (487). Compared with the 76 other education systems with PISA 2018 reading literacy data, including both OECD and non-OECD countries, the U.S. average reading literacy score was lower than in 8 education systems, higher than in 57 education systems, and not measurably different in 11 education systems. The U.S. percentage of top performers in reading was larger than in 63 education systems, smaller than in 2 education systems, and not measurably different in 11 education systems. The average reading literacy score in 2018 (505) was not measurably different from the average score in 2000 (504), the first year PISA was administered. Among the 36 education systems that participated in both years, 10 education systems reported higher average reading literacy scores in 2018 compared with 2000, and 11 education systems reported lower scores.

The U.S. average score of 15-year-olds in mathematics literacy in 2018 (478) was lower than the OECD average score (489). Compared with the 77 other education systems with PISA 2018 mathematics literacy data, the U.S. average mathematics literacy score was lower than in 30 education systems, higher than in 39 education systems, and not measurably different in 8 education systems. The average mathematics literacy score in 2018 (478) was not measurably different from the average score in 2003 (483), the earliest year with comparable data. Among the 36 education systems that participated in both years, 10 systems reported higher mathematics literacy scores in 2018 compared with 2003, 13 education systems reported lower scores, and 13 education systems reported no measurable changes in scores.  

The U.S. average score of 15-year-olds in science literacy (502) was higher than the OECD average score (489). Compared with the 77 other education systems with PISA 2018 science literacy data, the U.S. average science literacy score was lower than in 11 education systems, higher than in 55 education systems, and not measurably different in 11 education systems. The average science literacy score in 2018 (502) was higher than the average score in 2006 (489), the earliest year with comparable data. Among the 52 education systems that participated in both years, 7 education systems reported higher average science literacy scores in 2018 compared with 2006, 22 education systems reported lower scores, and 23 education systems reported no measurable changes in scores.

PISA is conducted in the United States by NCES and is coordinated by OECD, an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries. Further information about PISA can be found in the technical notes, questionnaires, list of participating OECD and non-OECD countries, released assessment items, and FAQs.

 

By Thomas Snyder

The IES Investment in Mathematics and Science Education Research

By Christina Chhin, NCER Program Officer and Rob Ochsendorf, NCSER Program Officer

Here is a common question we receive at IES: “What has IES funded in the areas of mathematics and science?” Given that both NCER and NCSER have dedicated “Mathematics and Science Education” research topics, you would think it would be an easy question to answer. That is until you see that both NCER and NCSER also support projects focusing on math and science through other research topic areas, including programs such as Cognition and Student Learning, Early Learning Programs and Policies, Educational Technology, and Effective Teachers and Effective Teaching. To help answer this question, IES has just released a compendium of research grants focusing on mathematics or science funded between 2002 to 2013. This compendium is part of a series of documents intended to summarize the research investments that NCER and NCSER are making to improve student education outcomes in specific topical areas.

As noted in the compendium, between 2002 to 2013, NCER and NCSER has funded over 300 projects focused on mathematics or science education, with 215 of them being instructional interventions (e.g., packaged curricula, intervention frameworks, and instructional approaches), 75 professional development programs, 165 educational technologies, and 65 assessments in math and science. The math and science compendium is a useful tool for a wide array of education stakeholders, as it not only provides brief descriptions of each project, it also is categorizes each project into sections based on content area, grade level, and intended outcome.

Picture of the cover of "A Compendium of Math and Science Research Funded by NCER and NCSER: 2002–2013"

So, how does the investment in mathematics and science that NCER and NCSER have made compare to other education research investments? Between 2002 and 2013, NCER and NCSER funded more than 1,110 education research grants, so research on mathematics and science makes up approximately a third of the research centers' total investment.  The compendium shows that NCER and NCSER have made significant contributions to STEM education by supporting rigorous, scientifically valid research that is relevant to education practice and policy focused on mathematics and science education; however, there is still room for growth. For instance, the compendium makes apparent that NCER and NCSER have funded few projects focusing specifically on geometry or earth and space science in grades K to 12. NCER and NCSER have come a long way in helping to support high-quality mathematics and science education research and will continue to do so to help address the gaps and needs in the field. 

Do you have a research project that will address some of these identified gaps? If so, be sure to sign up for IES Newsflash or follow us on Twitter, so that you will receive notice when our new Requests for Applications are released. 

Questions? Comments? Send us an email at IESResearch@ed.gov.

 

The Month(s) in Review: September and October 2015

By Liz Albro, NCER Associate Commissioner of Teaching and Learning

New Evaluation of State Education Programs and Policies Awards Announced

Congratulations to the recipients of our Evaluation of State Education Programs and Policies awards. These projects examine a range of topics: low-performing schools, college- and career-readiness standards, and teacher effectiveness and evaluation.

Building Strength in Numbers: Friends of IES Briefings

The Friends of IES, a coalition of research organizations working to raise the visibility of IES-funded studies, asked three IES funded researchers to participate in briefings for Department of Education leadership and for the public on Capitol Hill. Sharing findings from their IES-funded studies, the researchers highlighted how providing high quality mathematics instruction to children as young as three-years-old, and providing systematic and sustained opportunities for those children to learn more mathematics in subsequent instructional years, can substantially narrow achievement gaps at the end of preschool and how those gains can persist over time. What to know more? Read our earlier blog post or the AERA news story for additional details.

Congratulations to Patricia Snyder on receiving the 2015 DEC Award for Mentoring

Congratulations to Patricia Snyder, recipient of the 2015 Division for Early Childhood (DEC) Award for Mentoring. DEC, a division of the Council for Exceptional Children, awards this honor to a member who has provided significant training and guidance to students and new practitioners in the field of early childhood special education. Snyder is a professor of special education and early childhood studies and the David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida. She is also the Principal Investigator (PI) and Training Program Director for a NCSER-funded postdoctoral training grant, Postdoctoral Research Training Fellowships in Early Intervention and Early Learning in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has also served as the PI and co-PI on several other NCSER-funded awards.

Thanks to all of our IES Postdoctoral Fellows: Past, Present and Future!

Did you know that the third week of September was National Postdoc Appreciation Week? While we tweeted our appreciation for the postdocs we support through our NCER and NCSER Postdoctoral Training Programs, we thought you might like to learn a bit more about what some of our postdocs are doing.

Publishing: Postdocs are busy publishing findings from their research. For example, David Braithwaite, a fellow in this Carnegie Mellon postdoctoral training program recently published Effects of Variation and Prior Knowledge on Abstract Concept Learning. Two postdoc fellows, Kimberly Nesbitt and Mary Fuhs, who were trained in this Vanderbilt postdoctoral training program, are co-authors on a recent publication exploring executive function skills and academic achievement in kindergarten.  Josh Polanin, another Vanderbilt postdoc, recently published two methodological papers: one on effect sizes, the other on using a meta-analytic technique to assess the relationship between treatment intensity and program effects.

Receiving Research Funding:  Previous postdoc fellows who trained at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have recently been awarded research funding. Erin Reid and her colleagues were recently awarded an NSF DRK-12 grant to adapt and study a teacher professional development (PD) intervention, called Collaborative Math (CM), for use in early childhood programs. Former fellow David Purpura was recently awarded a grant from the Kinley Trust to delineate the role of language in early mathematics performance. Dr.  Purpura is also co-PI on a 2015 IES grant, Evaluating the Efficacy of Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics.

Congratulations and good luck to all of our recently complete postdocs! Sixteen fellows have completed this year with 10 completing in the past two months. These fellows bringing their expertise to the community as full-time faculty, directors of research programs, and research associates at universities, non-profits, government agencies, and other organizations.

What have the Research Centers Funded? Check Out Our New Summary Documents

NCSER has funded research in a variety of topics relevant to special education and early intervention since 2006. Recently, NCSER staff summarized the work on several topics, with more to come in the future.

Research supported by both Centers is also described in our Compendium of Mathematics and Science Research, which was released in October.

Updated IES Research in the News

Curious to know what other IES-funded research projects have gotten media attention? We recently updated our IES Research in the News page, so that’s your quickest way to find out!