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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. Fourth-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 mathematics and science knowledge of a half-million students from 41 nations at five different grade levels. This report presents findings from the tests, questionnaires, and curriculum analysis performed at the fourth grade. Twenty-six nations participated in the fourth-grade assessment.

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

This report on fourth-grade students is the second of a series of three public-audience reports titled Pursuing Excellence. The first report presented findings on student achievement at eighth grade. The third report will be released in the spring of 1998, and will present findings from the twelfth grade. Additional reports will provide information on various other topics.

TIMSS is a fair and accurate comparison of mathematics and science achievement in the participating nations. It is not a comparison of "all of our students with other nations' best students," a charge that some critics have leveled at previous international comparisons. The students who participated in TIMSS were randomly selected to represent all students in their respective nations, with the exception of a few nations which are clearly noted in this report. The entire assessment process was scrutinized by international technical review committees to ensure its adherence to established standards. Those nations in which irregularities arose are clearly noted in this and other TIMSS reports.


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. In fourth-grade science achievement, we are close to this mark. Fourth graders in only one country – Korea – outperform U.S. students in this subject.

In mathematics, U.S. fourth graders perform above the international average of the 26 TIMSS countries. U.S. students are outperformed by those in 7 countries and outperform those in 12 countries. Among our major economic partners who participated in the study, our students' scores are below those of Japan, not significantly different from those of Canada, and are significantly higher than those of England.

In science, U.S. fourth graders also perform above the international average of the 26 TIMSS countries. U.S. students are outperformed by students in only one country – Korea. U.S. students outperform those in 19 countries. Among our major economic partners who participated in the study, our students' scores are not significantly different from those of fourth graders in Japan. Our students outperform those in England and Canada.

In mathematics content areas, our fourth graders exceed the international average in five of the six areas assessed. These five areas are: whole numbers; fractions and proportionality; data representation, analysis, and probability; geometry; and patterns, relations, and functions. In one content area, the U.S. average is lower than the international average – measurement, estimation, and number sense.

In science content areas, our fourth graders' performance exceeds the international average in all four of the areas assessed. In three of these content areas – earth science; life science; and environmental issues and the nature of science – U.S. fourth grade students are significantly outperformed by only one or two other nations. In physical science, five other nations perform significantly better than the U.S.

If an international talent search were to select the top 10 percent of all fourth-grade students in the 26 countries, in mathematics 9 percent of U.S. fourth-grade students would be included. In science, 16 percent would be included.

The international standing of U.S. fourth graders is stronger than that of U.S. eighth graders in both mathematics and science.

In comparison with their international counterparts, U.S. students perform better in science than in mathematics at both the fourth and eighth grades.


It is too early in the process of data analysis to provide strong evidence to suggest factors that may be related to the patterns of achievement described here. No single factor or combination of factors emerges as particularly important.

On most background factors studied, there is no difference between the U.S. and the international average, or the differences are small. Therefore, these factors are unlikely to be strongly associated with our international standing.

On those background factors on which there is a difference between the U.S. and the international average, the factor is not shared with most high performing countries. Therefore, these factors are also unlikely to be strongly associated with our international standing.

In general, preliminary analyses shed little light on factors which might account for the differences between our performance in mathematics and science, and our performance at the fourth and eighth grades. Further analyses are needed to provide more definitive insights on these subjects.


This report presents initial findings from TIMSS for fourth-grade mathematics and science, and evidence from early analyses concerning the context of U.S. education achievement. Adequate understanding of our nation's education in an international perspective must await findings from the twelfth-grade data and deeper analysis of data at all grade levels.

TIMSS is not an answer book, but a tool to examine our own national educational strengths and weaknesses in an international perspective. All countries, including the U.S., have something to learn from other nations, and have something from which other countries can learn. These TIMSS findings will be an important source of information to guide our nation in the pursuit of excellence into the next century.

Mathematics: What's the Big Idea?

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