UBC Reports
November 28, 1996

B.C. students above average in int'l testing

by Connie Bagshaw
Staff writer

Canadian students scored significantly higher than the international average in the world's largest test of mathematics and science skills written by students representing more than 40 countries.

Results of phase one of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), surveying grades 7 and 8 students, indicate that Canadian Grade 8 students averaged 59 per cent in both subjects, four percentage points higher than the international mean in mathematics, and three percentage points higher than the international mean in science.

"Conventional wisdom says we're not getting sufficient bang for our buck in our schools," said David Robitaille, international co-ordinator of TIMSS and head of UBC's Dept. of Curriculum Studies, at a news conference on Nov. 20 announcing the findings.

"These results don't support that. I'm not saying that we can't do better, but Canadian children have improved over the past 15 years in both subjects."

Comparing overall achievement in mathematics between Canada and other participating nations, 10 scored higher, 10 attained the same results and 20 had lower averages. In science, nine countries surpassed Canadian scores, 14 achieved the same averages and 17 scored lower.

For the first time in an international study, Canada was represented by a national sample of schools, including public, private, separate and English and French-speaking. Five provinces -- B.C., Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland -- selected samples large enough to make inter-provincial comparisons possible.

British Columbia and Alberta placed higher in mathematics than Canada as a whole while both Ontario and New Brunswick scored significantly lower than the Canadian average.

"Overall, the performance of Canadian students was very good, but there are important differences among the provinces," Robitaille said. "Undoubtedly, the ministries of education involved will want to closely examine the implications of those differences.

"The results will help Canadian educators and policy makers in planning for reform of curriculum and teaching in these two important areas so that Canadian students can be given the best education we can provide."

About 500,000 students in 15,000 schools worldwide participated in the study, launched in 1991, which compared mathematics and science curricula and teaching methods of school systems, as well as achievement scores and attitudes of students toward the subjects. Approximately 150,000 of those students were involved in the grades 7 and 8 surveys and tests.

Each student wrote one 90-minute test containing mathematics and science components, and responded to a questionnaire. All test materials were developed in English then translated by participants into 30 other languages. Final translations were verified and approved centrally.

In addition to testing grades 7 and 8 mathematics and science students, surveys and tests were also performed on grades 3 and 4 students and students in the final year of secondary school. Reports on those findings will be published in 1997.

Canadian girls and boys performed equally well in mathematics and science, which represents a significant change over the past 20 years, the report said.

Both girls and boys attained an average of 59 per cent in mathematics. In science, boys averaged 60 per cent and girls scored 58 per cent. Similar findings were reported in most of the western industrialized nations.

Robitaille expects the data to have an impact on policy decisions affecting education, and, with further analysis, will help identify the characteristics common among the Canadian schools which make them the most successful in teaching mathematics and science.

TIMSS was conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an association of universities, research institutes and ministries of education that conducts co-operative international research studies in education.

Funding for Canadian participation and international co-ordination of TIMSS was provided by Human Resources Development Canada, Industry Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Education. The U.S.-based National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics also provided major funding for the international co-ordination of the study.