View Header


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release June 10, 1997
                           PRESS BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

12:01 P.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Good afternoon. Thank you for your patience. We have with us today to brief on today's event the Secretary of Education, Dick Riley. Also speaking will be Pat Forgione, who is the Commissioner of Education Statistics. We have Bruce Alberts, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences. And Joseph Bordogna, who is the Acting Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation. And also available to answer questions will be Lois Peak, who is Project Officer with TIMSS at the National Center for Education Statistics. And Bill Schmidt, who is National Research Coordinator for TIMSS, he is located out at Michigan State University.

Secretary Riley.

SECRETARY RILEY: As all of you just heard President Clinton say, this is a good day for American education. The latest results of the Third International Math and Science Study, or TIMSS, shows that American children can, indeed, compete with students anywhere in the world in math and science, especially in these early years.

Nine percent of our 4th graders rank in the top 10 percent in math. That means 365,000 American children in the 4th grade are among the best in the world. Sixteen percent rank in the top 10 percent in the world of science -- that's 640,000 American students. And I'll tell you, that's a lot of excellence that's out there. All of this improvement doesn't come easy. America is a big and a diverse country. School reform is hard. The international competition is tough, also. But we are rising to the challenge in the 4th grade. We still have a long way to go, but we're really moving in the right direction.

Now, comes the next challenge: the result of the TIMSS 8th grade test, which were released last September, show that we don't seem to make the same kind of progress between the 4th and the 8th grades that some other countries do, especially in math. The President just discussed some of the causes of this. Unfortunately, 8th grade math has really become kind of the missing link in education. Our 8th grade math scores are below average internationally, and we need to focus like a laser beam on boosting math skills in the middle grades. That's why it's so important to move forward with the voluntary national 8th grade math test in 1999.

Students deserve the best science education too. A recent Beyer Corporation survey shows that students like science and they think it's important. And 90 percent of business executives say that science literacy is important today for entry level jobs. In the next few minutes three distinguished leaders will give you more details on the background on TIMSS. First, you will hear from Pat Forgione, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Dr. Forgione.

DR. FORGIONE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. In my capacity as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, I was pleased earlier today to release the 4th grade report of the U.S. findings from TIMSS, the Third International Math and Science Study. In sheer quantitative terms, TIMSS is the largest, most comprehensive and the most rigorous international education comparison study done to date -- far more than any previous study. In 1995, researchers tested some half a million students at three grade levels in 41 countries. Last November, we released the Grade 8 results. Today's study examines 26 countries in Grade 4.

I'd like to report on two types of finding. First, how did our U.S. 4th graders to overall in their achievement; and, second, the pattern of contrasting the 4th to 8th grade in both science and mathematics. So, first, what did we learn about U.S. performance in math and science in Grade 4? As the President noted, the major finding of this study is that U.S. 4th graders are above the international average in both math and science. In 4th grade, we are very close to achieving the national education goal of being first in the world, which was established by the President and governors at the historic Charlottesville Education Summit in 1989.

As shown in this chart, 4th graders in only one country -- Korea -- scored statistically higher than our 4th graders in science. Five countries are in the band, like the United States, and 19 countries performed below us in Grade 4 science. It's important to note that due to margins of error when you do these kinds of studies, countries are grouped into bands of comparison -- who is above you, who is similar to you and who is below you. This is the way we're reporting these results.

Now, if we look at the second chart, let's see how we did in mathematics. Here, seven countries are statistically better than us, six countries are similar to us and 12 countries scored below the U.S. In these Grade 4 reports, 12 countries were out-performed by the United States in both math and science -- that included England, Greece, Norway, Portugal and Scotland. Only one country in this study out-performed us in both science and math, and that was Korea.

Now, let me refer to a third chart. The value of TIMSS is the information it brings to our educators and our public. And the good news here is we are above average in almost all the content areas. The U.S. succeeds the international average in five of the six mathematics areas and in all four of the science areas. From TIMSS we also know that like 21 other countries, the United States showed no gender gap in mathematics in Grade 4. In science, however, the United States was one of 10 countries where a gender gap does exist.

Now that we have two points of reference -- the 4th grade study here and the 8th grade study that was produced last November -- let me point out two patterns in these data. The first pattern: the international standing of U.S. 4th graders is stronger than 8th graders in both math and science. So our 4th graders performed, relative to the international criteria, better than our 8th grades performed compared to the international competition. In mathematics, for example, U.S. 4th graders scored above the international average. But our 8th graders, remember, scored below the international average. In science, our 4th graders only had one country that was statistically better than us, Korea. But in 8th grade, if you remember, nine countries were better than us in science.

So let me go to the second pattern: how the U.S. students performed better in science at both grades than in mathematics. In science, U.S. students performed above the international average in both 4th grade and 8th grade. But in mathematics, we performed above it in 4th grade, but below it in 8th grade. Three questions really emerge before us. Why do U.S. 4th graders perform above the international average in both subjects? Second question, which goes back to pattern one, why do U.S. 4th graders do relatively better than their 8th grade counterparts at this moment in time? And why do U.S. students do better at both grades in science rather than math?

From a statistical perspective, we do not have clear cut answers to these questions at this early point of the TIMSS release. But we can certainly say, there's no single factor or combinations of factors that emerge as overwhelmingly important. There are no easy answers; no factors that are present in the high performers and absent in the low performers. All the analysis is not done, but to date, we have not been able to identify any.

In summary, TIMSS provides good information for citizens, for teachers, for the policymakers to make well-informed decisions. Sound data supports sound policies. These TIMSS reports are just the starting point. And you now have the report and it's all in your packet. And I'd like to introduce the President of the National Academy of Sciences, who's an independent official, Bruce Alberts.

MR. ALBERTS: Thank you, Pat. I guess that means I'm not employed by the government. (Laughter.) I'd like to start by congratulating all this nation's elementary school teachers. They've obviously done a fine job. I'd like to emphasize, however, that we could do better and I'd like to focus on the future.

You've already heard about the 8th grade results and how they were not nearly as positive as the 4th grade results that were released today. Let me also remind you that the poor performance at the 8th grade level was not confined to just one class of students. Even if we pick out the top math performers, the United States placed only five percent of our students in world's top 10 percent. This is compared to several Asian countries who had more than a third of their students in the top 10 percent of the world's students.

As Pat said, there's no single, obvious explanation for this big drop between 4th and 8th grade. Nevertheless, I'd like to make some observations that are based on the TIMSS study and also reflect my own long, active involvement with the San Francisco public school system before I came to Washington.

I believe that there are three critical factors that must come together for improvements to be made and sustained. Number one, for the first time in our nation's history, we have national science and mathematic standards that provide the basis for reforms. These are the science standards. These are the math standards. These are the blue prints, the direction to move in, which is in part why I suspect that we're seeing these good results from the 4th grade. Our students are beginning to benefit from standards-based curricula and standards-based teaching. But I emphasize "beginning," because there is still much more work to be done.

Number two, there is a need for outstanding standards-based curricula in every school. What the curriculum is does matter. If your child is still doing the same type of arithmetic problems in 8th grade, for example, that she was doing in 4th grade, only with more complicated numbers, then something is wrong. Instead of page after page of long division problems and computations with mixed fractions, she should be working on analytical problems that are based on real-world situations. She should, for example, be developing the problem-solving skills that are needed to look at the graph on the bottom of Page 1 in USA Today, and to understand what it says and means and to be able to explain it to her parents.

This type of understanding, being able to tease apart problems and analyze them, is promoted by both the math and the science standards. These standards bring math and science closer to the work force, requiring more than the rote memorization of science words and they move us beyond addition, subtraction and long division. They support exactly the kind of understanding that prepares students for the workplace of tomorrow. In the 21st century, science and math skills will be important for everyone. And the reason is simple: it's jobs.

Number three, as the standards emphasize, the task of educating our nation's youth is a task for all of us, and that's why I'm up here today. Our nation's 2.2 million scientists and engineers have a special role in supporting our teachers. For example, consider Leon Lederman, a nobel laureate in physics, who was here this morning and mentioned by the Secretary. He's devoted a great deal of his time and energy to improving education in his hometown of Chicago. His strong focus on helping teachers provides a model for many others to follow.

We could all recall, I'm sure, a teacher, one or two, at least, who inspired us to examine a topic and pull it apart, to explore and to analyze. We must work together to give all of our teachers the tools and the resources they need in order to do this well. Thank you.

I have to introduce the next speaker, who is Joe Bordogna from the National Science Foundation.

MR. BORDOGNA: As part of the national team, the National Science Foundation has been investing in systemic reform of mathematics and science in kindergarten-12th education. We do this -- we make this investment in a very focused way. We concentrate on enabling the teachers to be able to realize the standards that are being set.

So, in standards-based curricula, we want to make sure the teachers know what they are and they teach to that. The professional development of teachers is a big investment in this regard. Also, the teachers have to have the materials and the tools necessary to match the standards-based curricula. And we've worked very hard to help develop those tools.

An emphasis now, for the next several years, so the 4th graders can achieve well in the 8th grade, is to move more of these investments from 1st to 4th grade through the middle schools and then hopefully -- well not hopefully -- we believe we can realize an 8th grade test with these 4th graders that we'll really be tops in the world again.

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you. Thank you so much. And we would entertain questions at this time for any of the group.

Q Why are Asian children so far ahead -- students?

SECRETARY RILEY: Pat, you want to? Anybody?

Q -- work harder? Study longer?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, they're not that much further ahead, if you'll notice 4th grade. I think that we're very competitive with those. But I don't know --

DR. FORGIONE: It's not the simple answers of time or homework or TV. TIMSS is pushing us in the direction of curriculum -- the text books, the teaching, the instruction. From Grade 8, our data released last November -- we had a video study. And that video study showed us very clearly that what our students in 8th grade were getting were not challenging content compared to Japan and Germany. Also, from the TIMSS study at Grade 8, what our students typically got in Grade 8, the high-performing countries were exposing at Grade 7. And Bill Schmidt's curriculum study kind of reinforces that. So this is the directions we need to head towards -- demanding high standards and being able to develop systems that can deliver those.

SECRETARY RILEY: One thing, you remember in the 8th grade study, the curriculum that Pat speaks of, the indication was from that -- and understand these are studies, they're not just tests and that's such a big help -- that in this country, in the 8th grade, we had something like seven to 10 topics -- had 30 to 35 topics, and Bill Schmidt is here to maybe speak to that, and in the other countries that we compared with, especially the Asian countries, they had seven to 10. So they had less topics deeper in their curriculum learning, so it was a very interesting analysis.

Do you want to speak to that, Bill? I think that's a very interesting point.

MR. SCHMIDT: Yes, as the Secretary said, at the 8th grade the Asian countries and many of the other Eastern European and other countries had a much more focused curriculum on fewer topics. They went into great depth in those topics. But I think there's also another part of this, and that is that at 8th grade our curriculum is not very much in line with what children in most of the rest of the world are doing.

Fourth grade, we line up very well with the rest of the world. We concentrate on the basics of arithmetic and the basics of science. But in the middle school years, the rest of these countries move on to more advanced topics, like algebra, geometry, chemistry and physics. We simply don't make that shift. So at 8th grade, we're doing much the same set of things we were at 4th grade and the rest of the world isn't.


Q Can you explain how you determined what was statistically significant and why Japan is not -- that number is not considered above U.S.?

MR. FORGIONE: This is a pre-Copernican view of the world. You take yourself and you build the report around yourself. Who is in the middle? Who is like the United States? And then you say statistically, who is above the United States. I just came from Delaware and when we had the election, is Dole or Clinton ahead? You have to look at the standard errors and see. From the United States point of view, the only country that really was statistically above us is Korea. Japan fitted in with five other nations and the United States. You cannot really distinguish that. This is a sampling process. Those scores should be treated alike. It's only the bottom band down here that scored lower.

That's the nature of this reporting. You can't rank order here. You don't know who is second. We know that this group is behind Korea and any of them should be treated equal to the United States. Now, each of them may put out their own report, and that's why the standards errors could compare. If you look in the international report, which goes off of the international mean, it has Korea and Japan up here because it doesn't look at us tightly. But this is the proper way, statistically, to report. And historically, we have not had good reporting in our prior international assessment. You must be very careful in the statements you make, and we cannot say that any other nation is above this group but Korea, because that would be improper statistically.

Q Secretary Riley, why is it that the 4th grade report is coming out now and the 8th grade report -- already came out, is that the case?

MR. FORGIONE: There are three populations in the third international assessment. There is a 9-year-old population, a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old end of high school. The 9-year-olds, one-third of them are in 3rd grade, two-thirds are in 4th grade. We're reporting the 4th grade study because the United States reports by grades -- 4, 8 and 12. The rest of the world doesn't; it deals by ages.

But the reason why 8th grade came out first, you had to participate in 8th grade. That's why we had 41 countries. Dr. Schmidt has 50 in the curriculum study, but some of them couldn't afford to be in all three. So 8th grade came out first because it was our strongest cohort that we led with. This has 26 countries who also wanted to participate. When you come next February, you're going to be down in the teens at each of the three reports.

Q But as I take it from this report, only 17 of those 26 countries actually met all the statistical sampling requirements. So does that mean that the universe of countries that we're comparing ourselves to internationally is actually just 17 countries?

MS. PEAK: My name is Lois Peak, and I'm the Project Officer at the National Center for Education Statistics on the report. There were very strong and high quality control standards that were used in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. They were stricter than ever before. The children who were chosen, the response rates, the cleaning of the data, the reporting of the data were all carefully scrutinized by international committees. And countries that couldn't quite meet the criterion either were not included in the report if it was very serious, or if it was of a medium nature have parentheses around them. Therefore, you notice countries with parentheses around them.

When you take out those countries for whom some sort of problem occurred, then our results are still the same as they are now. We're above average in both mathematics and science at the 4th grade, whether you compare to the 26 countries that participated at this grade level or to the 17 who did everything virtually perfectly.

Q I was wondering if -- based on your experience -- if there are any other countries who elected not to participate who you suspect would actually perform quite well on this test?

MS. PEAK: Most of the countries that participated -- the countries that participated are a very good mix. I think that the group of 4th grade countries is a little tougher for us actually than the group of 8th grade countries. We still have all the high performing Asian nations and most of the Eastern Bloc nations. The countries that did not participate tend to be countries that perform similar to us and below us, with a few exceptions.

Q Can you address the difference between 4th grade math and 4th grade science performance? Some people argue that the science performance is better because some of the science questions -- that area is more of a practical, day-to-day kind of skill that kids can pick up outside the classroom, whereas mathematics is primarily picked up inside the classroom.

MR. ALBERT: I'd actually give a different explanation. I think that -- if you look at -- I'm a scientist, so I really love science. If you look at what's being taught at elementary schools in the United States -- you start in kindergarten with real science in every school. Kids are curious, and we take advantage of that curiosity. The new curricula that have been developed over the last 10 years or so for elementary science are outstanding and they are permeating our schools -- an attitude of hands-on exploratory learning is permeating our elementary schools.

I have been working with the schools of San Francisco for 15 years. It is harder to change teachers and schools the higher up you go, in my experience. So what you find far too often now in middle school and high school are these word lists, word association, these textbooks full of every kind of part of a cell, part of a flower. I and my fellow scientists would claim that is not science -- we have had a perversion of science; that what science is is an exploration, the kind of thing you do in elementary school.

And so our task really to move the eighth grade scores up and to create a much more powerful group of citizens who can compete on a world level is to keep that hands-on exploratory kind of learning and the excitement of learning science throughout all the years of school.


MR. SCHMIDT: Yes, I would just like to add to those comments that there also is data that would suggest still another possible explanation for doing better in science. Remember, we are doing better in science relative to the other countries. At fourth grade in science, we simply are very well consistent and lined up with what most other countries are studying, so what we are doing is pretty much what everybody else is studying. And I think that shows that when our children have that -- and we are also much more focused at fourth grade in terms of the number of topics we do.

So when our children are left with an even competing field, being focused and studying the same things that the rest of the children in the rest of the world are studying, we do very well.


Q Is there a point difference that you look at to determine what is significantly statistically different? I am trying to decide -- what is the point?

MS. PEAK: The exact number of points depends somewhat on the country and how large their sample of students was; however, if you are comparing to the United States, plus or minus 17 points is about the margin of error that we have at the 4th grade study.

Q Secretary Riley, in your opinion, what are we doing right? And by that I mean, what is different now, why are we achieving so well in the 4th grade in the mathematics and in the science and as opposed to years past?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well -- and I go to a lot of schools, a lot of elementary schools and middle and high schools. But I'll tell you, any of you that go into -- I'll just say, pick any elementary school -- some of them are just wonderful, a lot of them are, most of them are. It amazes me to see what's going on, the kind of engaging work that's going on, the kind of projects that are developing by the children -- long-term analysis of things, like in a science project or whatever.

The standards movement I think is a very solid way for us to focus on academics in this country. That is extremely important. And then to have the assessment aligned with those standards, which every state in one way or another -- Goals 2000, of course, is helping to fund that in many states, in all states one way or another. I think those are the right directions to go. But you can have wonderful standards, as important as that is, and then you can build curriculum framework to meet a standard -- and all of that is very important, but you've got to have good teachers, you've got to have parents who are interested and willing to work with their children.

At the breakfast table this morning my daughter and my granddaughter were discussing in detail the life stages of a butterfly. And I got fascinated by it -- this little 2nd grader using these big, long scientific terms, whatever. But you see those things happening in our schools. And I really think that's making a tremendous difference, is showing up. And now is the time for us to put more attention, more parents, more community support, more support, more attention to standards or whatever. So, that's my position.

Anybody have any thing you want to add?

MR. BORDOGNA: This is an important issue for the National Science Foundation because they're making investments and enabling the teachers to meet the standards. So a number of issues here are -- first of all, the standards in 1st through 4th grade are pretty much the same around the world now. So, that when you test, you're testing to the same standards. We've done a better job in the 1st through 4th grade with systemic reform by concentrating on those teachers for the last several years, so that we're investing in the professional development so they can teach to meet the standards.

We haven't been doing -- another important part of this, and Secretary Riley mentioned it -- and that's the partnership. You can't do all this without a partnership between the schools and the communities at large. We're very interested at NSF in trying to affect a partnership with the universities and school systems in the local regions.

So a lot of effort's been placed on that generally, but specifically on the 1st through 4th grade teachers. So we haven't done as well in the 4th to 8th grade. And so there is more than hope here. There's a pattern now developed in which, when we do make investments, something good happens.

Q Mr. Secretary, most of the states haven't signed on to the President's national standards program. And there -- a lot of people feel that education should really stay within the local domain. Can these scores improve -- can we improve in math and science in the future without a national standards program?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, first of all, you're right. When it comes to the national test, the voluntary national test, 4th grade reading and 8th grade math -- don't forget reading in all of this, by the way. If a student does well in science and in math, they are probably reading well. So I think that's a good indication, too. Those tests, you're right, there are only certain states that have come in yet. That's a new proposal on the part of the President.

But as far as standards are concerned, every state -- practically every state in this country is working on developing their own standards one way or another. And the President, when he talks about national standards, he's urging them -- and going from state to state -- to make sure their standards are high and they're challenging and they are world class. So the standards movement is in place, and it is working. Some states very strong, some less strong, but moving in the right direction.

The national voluntary tests -- of course, I think this makes a very clear case, for example, for the 8th grade math test, which will include algebra and some geometry. So I think we're on track, exactly where we want to be; but we need to get all the states, hopefully, involved in this voluntary test and all of them continuing to move forward in standards. But I think the standards process is extremely important, it's very practical. But the state, as you point out, the state and the local community, the local schools, are in control of all that -- and they should be. What the President is trying to do is to lead them to reach for high standards and then to be willing to take this individualized national test.

MR. TOIV: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you all very much.

END 12:32 P.M. EDT