Nine takeaways from the 2015 Trends in International Math and Science Study Results

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The highest performing countries are paying extra attention to the quality of their teachers. (Photo: Dominic Chavez / World Bank)

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the results of its latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) yesterday, November 29. TIMSS 2015 assessed more than 600,000 students in grades four, eight, and the final year of secondary school across 60 education systems.

Over the coming weeks and months, the data will be carefully dissected and explanations sought for the performance of various countries. Here are my nine quick takeaways:
Singapore continues to dominate the TIMSS rankings at the fourth and eighth grade levels, along with Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, and Korea. The gap between these top performers and the next highest country is large for all subjects and grades, but particularly so in the case of eighth-grade math where it has widened considerably (48 score points in 2015, up from 31 score points in TIMSS 2011).
Other high-performing countries on TIMSS 2015 include Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Slovenia. All three have made impressive gains in math and science at the fourth and eighth grade levels. It will be important to look more closely at the data for these countries in order to better understand how they have achieved this success, including whether the improvements are linked to particular reforms.
No low-income countries participated in TIMSS 2015. Only three lower-middle income countries (Egypt, Indonesia, and Morocco) participated, all scoring well below the international average. At the same time, it’s good to see that one of these countries – Morocco – has shown significant improvements in both subjects and grades since its last participation in TIMSS in 2011.  
Only two Sub-Saharan African countries participated in TIMSS 2015 (Botswana and South Africa), both upper-middle income. This suggests that even after 20 years, TIMSS is still not seen as a viable option for many lower-income economies in Africa. Some of these countries instead participate in regional assessments or have their own national assessment, but others simply continue to operate without any system-level data on student learning or how they compare to other countries.  
In general, curriculum and teachers appear key to doing well on TIMSS. According to the TIMSS Study Directors, the highest-performing countries pay rigorous attention to curriculum, teachers, learning resources, and parental support. At the same time, student achievement on TIMSS does not appear to be related to formal teacher qualifications.
Overall student achievement levels in math and science have improved since the first TIMSS in 1995, with the majority of countries that participated in TIMSS 1995 and TIMSS 2015 seeing increased achievement in both grades and subjects over this time period. Countries with particularly impressive gains include Portugal (99 score points increase for grade four math) and Slovenia (78 score points increase for grade four science).
Gender gaps have narrowed in many TIMSS countries over the last 20 years. In 1995, boys in most countries (15 of 26) performed better than girls in math and science. In 2015, boys performed better in only three of these 15 countries.
Some countries are doing a particularly good job in raising the achievement of ALL of their students (and not just some). These include Cyprus, Hong Kong SAR, Iran, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Slovenia. In these countries, improvements in student achievement over time can be seen at all four international benchmarks on the math and science tests.
Trend results for TIMSS Advanced, which assesses students in their final year of secondary school, are less positive, with no improvements in student achievement levels for the nine countries that participated in 1995 and 2015 (France, Italy, Lebanon, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United States). The reasons why are complex, but deserve unpacking.
All of the TIMSS 2015 results are available to view and download here. The databases will follow in the coming weeks and this is when the real work for countries will begin. The data need to be carefully analyzed with an eye to better understanding what is driving the differences in achievement within and between countries. For some countries, this has become a standard task. For others, it continues to be a challenge. 
The results of the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exercise, which measures the performance of 15 year olds in math, science, reading, and problem solving, are due out next week and will no doubt also offer interesting findings on achievement levels across countries as well as the possibility of comparing the relative performance of countries who participated in both the TIMSS and PISA assessments.

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Marguerite Clarke

Senior Education Specialist

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