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Mathematics: What's the Big Idea?

U.S. Department of Education ~ National Center for Education Statistics


A Study of U.S. Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context



The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous international comparison of education ever undertaken. During the 1995 school year, the study tested the math and science knowledge of a half-million students from 41 nations at five different grade levels. In addition to tests and questionnaires, it included a curriculum analysis, videotaped observations of mathematics classrooms, and case studies of policy issues.

TIMSS' rich information allows us not only to compare achievement, but also provides insights into how life in U.S. schools differs from that in other nations.

This report on eighth-grade students is one of a series of reports that will also present findings on student achievement at fourth grade, and at the end of high school, as well as on various other topics.


One of our national goals is to be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement by the year 2000," as President Bush and 50 governors declared in 1989. Although we are far from this mark, we are on a par with other major industrialized nations like Canada, England, and Germany.

In mathematics, U.S. eighth graders score below the international average of the 41 TIMSS countries. Our students' scores are not significantly different from those of England and Germany.

In science, U.S. eighth graders score above the international average of 41 TIMSS countries. Our students' scores are not significantly different from those of Canada, England, and Germany.

In mathematics, our eighth-grade students' standing is at about the international average in Algebra; Fractions; and Data Representation, Analysis, and Probability. We do less well in Geometry; Measurement; and Proportionality.

In science, our eighth graders' standing is above the international average in Earth Science, Life Science, and Environmental Issues. Our students score about average in Chemistry and Physics.

If an international talent search were to select the top 10 percent of all 8th grade students in the 41 TIMSS countries, in mathematics 5 percent of U.S. students would be included. In science 13 percent would be included.


U.S. policy makers are concerned about whether expectations for our students are high enough, and in particular whether they are as challenging as those of our foreign economic partners. In all countries, the relationship between standards, teaching, and learning is complex. This is even more true in the U.S., which is atypical among TIMSS countries in its lack of a nationally defined curriculum.

The content taught in U.S. eighth-grade mathematics classrooms is at a seventh-grade level in comparison to other countries.

Topic coverage in U.S. eighth-grade mathematics classes is not as focused as in Germany and Japan.

In science, the degree of topic focus in the U.S. eighth-grade curriculum may be similar to that of other countries.

U.S. eighth graders spend more hours per year in math and science classes than German and Japanese students.


In recent years, concern about the quality of instruction in U.S. classrooms has led mathematics professional organizations to issue calls for reform. However, TIMSS data cannot tell us about the success of these reform efforts for several reasons, including the fact that this assessment occurred too soon after the beginning of the reform for states and districts to have designed their own programs, retrained teachers, and nurtured a generation of students according to the new approach. Also, we do not have comparable earlier baseline information against which to compare the findings from TIMSS. However, TIMSS includes the first large-scale observational study of U.S. teaching ever undertaken, and this can form a baseline against which future progress may be judged.

U.S. mathematics classes require students to engage in less high-level mathematical thought than classes in Germany and Japan.

U.S. mathematics teachers' typical goal is to teach students how to do something, while Japanese teachers' goal is to help them understand mathematical concepts.

Japanese teachers widely practice what the U.S. mathematics reform recommends, while U.S. teachers do so infrequently.

Although most U.S. math teachers report familiarity with reform recommendations, only a few apply the key points in their classrooms.


The training that teachers receive before they enter the profession and the regular opportunities that they have for on-the-job learning and improvement of their teaching affect the quality of the teaching force. The collegial support that teachers receive and the characteristics of their daily lives also affect the type of teaching they provide.

Unlike new U.S. teachers, new Japanese and German teachers undergo long-term structured apprenticeships in their profession.

U.S. teachers have more college education than their colleagues in all but a few TIMSS countries.

Japanese teachers have more opportunities to discuss teaching related issues than do U.S. teachers.

Student diversity and poor discipline are challenges not only for U.S. teachers, but for German teachers as well.


The manner in which societies structure the schooling process gives rise to different opportunities and expectations for young people. The motivators, supports, and obstacles to study in each country are outgrowths of the choices provided by society and schools.

Eighth-grade students of different abilities are typically divided into different classrooms in the U.S., and into different schools in Germany. In Japan, no ability grouping is practiced at this grade level.

In mathematics, U.S. students in higher ability-level classes study different material than students in lower-level classes. In Germany and Japan, all students study basically the same material, although in Germany the depth and rigor of study depends on whether the school is for students of higher or lower ability levels.

Japanese eighth-graders are preparing for a high-stakes examination to enter high school at the end of ninth grade.

U.S. teachers assign more homework and spend more class time discussing it than teachers in Germany and Japan. U.S. students report about the same amount of out-of-school math and science study as their Japanese and German counterparts.

Heavy TV watching is as common among U.S. eighth graders as it is among their Japanese counterparts.


This report presents initial findings from TIMSS for eighth-grade mathematics and science. A fuller understanding of our nation's educational health must await data from the fourth and twelfth-grade levels. The search for factors associated with student performance is complicated because student achievement after eight years of schooling is the product of many different factors. Furthermore, the U.S. education system is large and decentralized with many interrelated parts. No single factor in isolation from others should be regarded as the answer to improving the performance of U.S. eighth-grade students. With these cautions in mind, this report offers the following insights into factors that may be associated with our students' performance:

The content of U.S. eighth-grade mathematics classes is not as challenging as that of other countries, and topic coverage is not as focused.

Most U.S. mathematics teachers report familiarity with reform recommendations, only a few apply the key points in their classrooms.

Evidence suggests that U.S. teachers do not receive as much practical training and daily support as their German and Japanese colleagues.

TIMSS is not an answer book, but a mirror through which we can see our own education system in international perspective. Careful study of our nation's reflection in the mirror of international comparisons will assist educators, business leaders, teachers, and parents as they guide our nation in the pursuit of excellence.

Mathematics: What's the Big Idea?


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