Developed East Asia soars in math and science test results

Published on Wednesday, 09 January 2013

Published by Bart Edes on Wednesday, 09 January 2013

Pupils of the Jurong Primary School in Singapore. Singaporeans typically start primary schooling at age 7. Photo by Lester V. Ledesma for ADB, 2011.
Pupils of the Jurong Primary School in Singapore. Singaporeans typically start primary schooling at age 7. Photo by Lester V. Ledesma for ADB, 2011.

Students from developed East Asia are leading the world in math and science according to just-published results of exams delivered to 600,000 fourth grade students in more than 60 countries and territories, including many OECD members. Students in Singapore, Republic of Korea (ROK), Hong Kong, China, Taipei,China and Japan topped the rankings for mathematics, outperforming counterparts in other world regions. ROK and Japan led in science, while Japan finished fourth and Taipei,China fifth (in a tie with the Russian Federation). Among eighth graders, developed East Asia claimed the first five places for achievement in mathematics and four of the top five spots for science.

The test scores are the latest generated by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a quadrennial international assessment of fourth and eighth grade students. TIMSS was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to allow participating countries and territories to compare students' educational achievement across borders. The new results are based on data collected in 2011.

TIMMS records student achievement at four points along a scale of international benchmarks: advanced, high, intermediate and low. At the fourth grade level, 43 percent of Singapore’s students reached the advanced benchmark, a higher figure than any other country or territory. Singapore was followed by ROK, Hong Kong, China, Taipei,China and Japan, all with 30 percent or more. Northern Ireland was next with 24 percent, then England with 18 percent. The same five East Asian jurisdictions also had from 70 to 80 percent reach the high intermediate benchmark (again, Northern Ireland was next, with 59%), and 93 percent or more reach the intermediate benchmark (Belgium/Flemish had 89% and the Netherlands 88%).

At the eighth grade level, TIMMS shows that developed East Asia is pulling away from the rest of the world by a considerable margin. Capitalizing on the head start demonstrated by their fourth grade students, the above mentioned five East Asian jurisdictions had by far the largest percentages of eighth grade students reaching the advanced benchmark. Taipei,China, Singapore and ROK had nearly half of their students reach the advanced benchmark.

The IEA observes that mathematics is the foundation for further study in several school subjects, most notably the sciences. In addition, mathematics problem-solving builds logical reasoning skills that can be applied in many situations. The world is becoming increasingly “quantified,” and all students need to be well grounded in mathematical and technological thinking to live a productive life. Considering students’ future careers, IEA notes that mathematics is important to some degree in most occupations (e.g., construction, manufacturing, and business) and is required in many higher paying fields, such as engineering, science, accounting and medicine.

That all said, some critics have alleged that TIMMS suffers from problems with translation, sampling, and test quality control. Further, research shows that a variety of other factors strongly affect test performance, including stability and security of the school environment, demographics and family background. In the larger picture, high test scores by primary school students do not necessarily translate into more innovative, competitive economies. But they probably don’t hurt either.

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