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Are the best students really that advanced?

For those who see a quadrennial international assessment of how well students perform in mathematics and science as a global horse race, the latest news is that the heavy favorites have won again. A handful of East Asian countries crossed the finish line far ahead of their competitors on the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released today, whereas U.S. students once again wound up in the middle of the pack.

“That’s a lot of math knowledge and understanding” among East Asian students, says study co-director Ina Mullis of Boston College, about the 48-point gap in eighth grade math between Japan, in fifth place behind Singapore; Hong Kong, China; South Korea; and Taiwan, and the rest of the world. (There’s a 23-point gap in fourth grade math.) “East Asia has been the top performer for a long time, and the rest of the world is wondering if they will ever catch up.”

But there’s more to the TIMSS than simply the scores of 550,000 fourth and eighth graders from more than 40 countries who took the test, the sixth installment of a program begun in 1995. (The East Asian nations also lead in science, but several other countries are close behind.) For the first time, the TIMSS also tracked the progress of the same cohort of students by administering a third test in their last year of school. And the results are sobering to those trying to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education around the world.

In the nine countries that agreed to participate in that third test, called the TIMSS Advanced, students taking the most challenging math and science courses in their senior year were found to have performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school. The U.S. cohort, for example, scored 29 points above the midpoint of 500 on the physical science test they took as fourth graders, and 13 points above the midpoint as eighth graders. But they wound up 63 points below the midpoint as high school seniors taking physics. The cohort’s performance in math also deteriorated over time, from 29 and nine points ahead of the midpoint in fourth and eighth grade, respectively, to 15 points below as seniors. Italy recorded the steepest drops, a startling 126 points below the midpoint in physics and 78 points in advanced math by the end of high school.

Only an elite group of Russian students taking an extra daily dose of math avoided taking the plunge, with their scores staying well above the midpoint at each level. Slovenian students did so in physics but not in mathematics. The East Asian students did not participate in the TIMSS Advanced because it was seen as conflicting with the high-stakes final exam that determines university placement in those countries. So the TIMSS sheds no light on their performance across their entire school careers.

The advanced students also struggled to meet the international benchmark for the tests. In math, only 2% of the 32,000 students scored at an “advanced” level, and only 43% demonstrated even a “basic knowledge” of algebra, calculus, and geometry. The results were similar in physics: Only 5% of the 24,000 students were advanced, and a total of 46% showed a basic understanding of the subject. That means more than half the students tested weren’t really performing at an advanced level.

“Most countries are very disappointed” with those results, Mullis says. “People expected better.”

Gender gap

The Advanced test component also documented a persistent gender gap in many countries on both access to instruction and achievement. No country achieved parity in physics—France and Italy were closest, with 46% and 47% participation rates, respectively—and women also scored lower in every country except Lebanon. In advanced math, Italy was the only country in which women outscored men, and Slovenia was the only country in which a majority of students—60%—are women.

In the United States, only 39% of the students taking advanced high school physics are women, and they scored, on average, 46 points lower than men. At the same time, U.S. women are equally represented in math, although they scored 30 points below their male peers. (U.S. students placed sixth overall out of nine countries in physics, and third in math.)

In the classroom

The TIMSS also collects a trove of information about a student’s educational surroundings, including the amount of time spent on a subject, how classes are taught, and the training their teachers have received. But the results are far from conclusive about the best way for students in elementary and middle school to learn science and math.

For example, the TIMSS won’t end the perennial debate about the role of technology in the classroom. The use of computers in eighth grade math classes varies from 65% in Sweden to 4% in Malta. (The international average was 32%.) Yet those students with ready access to computers scored only four points higher than those without such access.

What the TIMSS says about teacher preparation is also hard to interpret. Top-ranked Singapore leads the United States by 44 points in fourth grade science, a statistic that seems consistent with having 54% of its teachers major in both science and elementary education, compared with only 11% of U.S. teachers. However, that figure is 43% in Norway, which finished eight points behind the United States.

At the same time, some of the TIMSS results lend credence to conventional wisdom. For example, eighth grade science students who “rarely or never” miss class scored 95 points higher than those who are absent once a week. That suggests time on task does affect how much students learn.

Jeffrey Mervis