Blog: The Educated Reporter

Putting Global Student Tests, U.S. Rankings in Context

(Flickr/Global Panorama via Creative Commons)

Near the end of 2016, results will come out for two major international assessments — kicking off a new round of analysis and debate over the standing of U.S. students on the global stage.

“We are really covering the whole range when it comes to these international studies,” said Dana Kelly, an official with the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the administration of both exams to U.S. students.

Kelly, who heads up the international assessment branch at the Department of Education’s statistics agency, and her NCES colleague Lydia Malley offered a primer on understanding the two assessments at a recent Education Writers Association conference in Washington. They noted that the two exams, best known by the acronyms PISA and TIMSS, measure different aspects of student aptitude. They also test students at different ages and include a different, but overlapping, pool of participating nations.

PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, tests 15-year-olds in dozens of industrialized countries on how well they can apply their learning in math, science, and reading to real-world contexts. Test items typically involve a set-up that provides broad context for a series of three to four questions that follow. Participation in the exam — administered every three years — has grown substantially over time. In 2015, the two-hour exam was given to students in 67 countries. Two states — North Carolina and Massachusetts — plus Puerto Rico also decided to participate as “benchmarking” systems, providing large enough samples of students so that their results can be compared with all nations that took part.

“It brings in the context of everyday situations,” Malley, an associate education research scientist at NCES, said of the PISA exam. “What I think about as a question asked by PISA is how well students nearing the end of their compulsory education apply their knowledge to real-life situations.”

TIMSS, the Trends in International Math & Science Study, gauges students’ mastery of learning at particular grade levels. The exam, which lasts 90 minutes, is administered every four years to 4th and 8th graders. In 2015, 43 countries participated in the 4th grade assessment, and 37 countries in the 8th grade exam. In addition, one state, Florida, will have results that are comparable with participating countries. TIMSS also periodically includes an exam for 12th graders in advanced math and science, which was administered in 2015.

TIMSS is designed, as the NCES explains, to align broadly with the math and science curricula in participating countries, and so to gauge how well students have learned key concepts and skills taught in school.  

“The goal of PISA is to assess outcomes of learning inside and outside of the classroom throughout their lives, whereas TIMSS represents the outcomes of schooling at specific grade levels,” Malley said.

As a part of the presentation, reporters also tried their hands at solving some of the exam items.

A math question on the eighth grade TIMSS, which asks student to draw an “isosceles triangle” with certain measurements, proved to be a particular challenge. While the concept itself was not difficult, it did require understanding the term “isosceles,” knowledge that proved remote for journalists who had not been in a geometry class for many years.

While closer to their last geometry class, American eighth graders didn’t fare much better on the question. Only 27 percent answered it correctly, compared with an international average of 48 percent.