This is the fourth in a series of blogs that delve below the headline findings from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
This blog focuses on what TIMSS can tell us about other countries’ curriculum and assessment systems. It compares information about England, which appeared in the top 10 of three of the four TIMSS assessments areas in 2015, with that of six other high performing jurisdictions – Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Singapore and Taiwan. All of these comparator countries featured in the top 10 across all four aspects of TIMSS (primary and secondary mathematics and science).
Each country that participated in TIMSS contributed a chapter that summarised the key aspects of its mathematics and science education system. This included a questionnaire on the content of the countries’ mathematics and science curricula. The outcome is a rich and powerful portrait of how mathematics and science are taught around the world.
The Encyclopedia contains information on the:
- structure and organisation of countries’ education systems
- national policies on age of school entry and promotion
- types of early childhood education
- components of nationally prescribed curriculum documents
- national policies regarding ‘high stakes’ testing
- procedures for selecting instructional materials
- role of technology in teaching and learning
- routes for educating and certifying teachers and principals (head teachers).
In this blog, we are concentrating on curriculum and assessment, namely the:
- instructional time devoted to mathematics and science curricula at the 4th and 8th grades
- number of TIMSS mathematics and science topics intended to be taught by the end of 4th and 8th grades
- methods used to evaluate the implementation of curricula at the 4th and 8th grades
- national policies regarding examinations with consequences for pupils
- processes for approving 4th and 8th grade instructional materials for mathematics and science.
England is unusual in not specifying a set percentage of time for mathematics and science instruction. Other countries set out a range of times, with proportionately more time on mathematics instruction in the primary grades than in secondary, and an increasing amount of time devoted to science in secondary.
Coverage of the TIMSS curriculum topics
The TIMSS test questions are set across an agreed list of topics in the intended mathematics and science curricula, such as number, shapes and measures and data display for 4th grade mathematics with algebra and geometry added to 8th grade mathematics. The national curriculum in England covers all but two of the 80 topics. Other jurisdictions’ curricula cover fewer topics, but it should be borne in mind that there can be differences between the intended and the taught curriculum as well as differences in the depth to which certain topics are taught. Additionally, this will not include topics that pupils may be familiar with from out-of-school tutoring. More detailed data on exactly which TIMSS topics are intended to be taught by the enf of the fourth grade and by the end of the eighth grade can be found on the IEA’s TIMSS Encyclopedia website.
One of the ways of trying to ensure that the intended curriculum becomes the taught curriculum is by evaluating how well teachers in schools teach and how well pupils do on national examinations and tests. In England there are high stakes visits by inspectors – Ofsted – and tests and examinations – key stage tests, GCSEs and A levels. Other places, such as Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan carry out nationally funded research programmes and some perform school self-examinations, such as Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
All of the jurisdictions under consideration had programmes of national testing in elementary schools in mathematics, and some had primary national testing in science, but for the most part – the exception being Singapore – these tests did not have direct consequences for pupils. The story is different at secondary, as can be seen in the table below.
There were also differences in the various policies for setting and streaming students by ability.
One of the topics that is currently being discussed in England is whether or not it should introduce nationally approved textbooks to support the national curriculum. England currently has no approval process for instructional materials, but most of the jurisdictions under consideration did.
Can lessons be learned from the TIMSS curriculum and assessment data?
This blog has highlighted here only a small fraction of the data available from the TIMSS Encyclopedia and has, at best, taken a very superficial view of those data. It has tried to draw attention to the wealth of information in the encyclopedia that is different from the report of test results and to provide useful information about how those results may have been achieved. Some patterns emerge in the information above, but none point in a hard and fast direction of travel. Any suggestions for changing the instructional system in England would need to take into consideration institutional factors such as political considerations, fiscal constraints, teacher training and development and cultural mores, to name just a few of the most obvious examples. Ministers and education experts would also have to take a far deeper dive into the curriculum and assessment systems, not only of the jurisdictions that do best in TIMSS but also into other systems, such as those in other English speaking nations as well as in countries with similar institutional and wider policy contexts.
You can find the full report on England’s performance here, headlines relating to mathematics and science performance here, a blog exploring how pupil attitudes to learning change in relation to achievement here and a blog looking at how teachers and school leaders in England compare with their international peers here. For a detailed breakdown of information available from TIMSS please see the IEA data tables, which contain data for all countries participating in TIMSS 2015 and the TIMSS Encyclopedia website.
 The TIMSS target population is the grade that represents four years or eight years of schooling counting from the first year of compulsory schooling. For England this would be year 4 and year 8. However, IEA has a policy that students do not fall under the minimum average age of 9.5 years old (Grade 4) or 13.5 years old (Grade 8) at the time of testing, so England, Malta, and New Zealand assess pupils in their fifth year or ninth year of formal schooling.