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Education / An exploration of ideas, issues and trends
in education | LESSONS FROM THE INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE
AND MATH TEST

Homework Alone Can't Explain It

March 16, 1998

It was another embarrassment for U.S. schools: America's 12th-graders ranked in the lower third among 21 nations in tests measuring knowledge of math and science. According to the test, given in the 1994-95 school year, even U.S. high school seniors who took advanced math and science were outperformed by their counterparts elsewhere. But the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), described as the most comprehensive international study of academic achievement ever, belied some common assumptions.

* Overall, U.S. high school seniors reported spending less time on homework (1.7 hours) than do students in most countries, but students studying math and science spend about the same amount of time on homework in those subjects (.7 hours in each) as students elsewhere.

* Spending more than three hours a night on homework in math or science does not guarantee top performance. In fact, students worldwide had higher scores if they spent one to two hours on homework.

* Televison can't be blamed for the poor performance by U.S. students. They spend about the same amount of time in front of the tube as do students in most other countries. U.S. students, however, do have to work--at jobs, not school--far more than do their international competitors.

How Students Spend Their Time / Average hours per school day. . .

*--*

Spending time with Watching friends Working Reading a televison outside of at a paid Playing book for or vidoes school job sports enjoyment Australia 1.8 1.3 1.4 1.1 0.6 Austria 1.5 2.3 0.5 1.0 0.8 Canada 1.6 2.0 2.2 1.1 0.7 Cyprus 1.6 1.4 0.6 0.8 0.4 Czech Republic 2.1 2.7 1.2 1.3 0.9 Denmark 1.7 1.9 1.5 1.3 0.5 France 1.3 1.4 0.6 1.0 0.8 Hungary 2.0 2.3 - - 1.2 1.1 Iceland 1.6 2.4 1.8 1.1 0.6 Italy 1.5 2.3 0.6 0.9 0.7 Lithuania 2.2 2.4 0.8 0.9 1.1 Netherlands 2.2 2.4 1.8 1.3 0.6 New Zealand 2.1 1.5 1.7 1.2 0.7 Norway 1.7 2.5 1.8 1.2 0.5 Russian Federation 2.5 2.8 0.2 0.9 1.4 Slovenia 1.4 1.7 0.5 1.0 0.6 South Africa 1.2 1.1 0.9 1.3 1.3 Sweden 1.6 1.9 0.5 1.2 0.6 Switzerland 1.2 2.3 0.6 1.2 0.6 United States 1.7 2.3 3.1 1.3 0.6

*--*

Study Time / Average hours per day studying. . .

*--*

Any homework Mathematics Science Australia 3.3 1.0 1.0 Austria 2.0 0.6 0.4 Canada 2.7 1.1 1.1 Cyprus 3.2 1.0 0.5 Czech Republic 1.4 0.4 0.5 Denmark* 2.4 0.9 0.7 France** 3.4 1.0 1.0 Hungary 2.9 0.7 0.9 Iceland 2.1 0.7 0.4 Italy 4.0 1.0 0.8 Lithuania 3.2 0.8 0.8 Netherlands 1.7 0.7 0.7 New Zealand 2.2 0.7 0.6 Norway 1.9 0.5 0.7 Russian Federation 3.5 1.2 1.1 Slovenia 2.2 0.7 0.5 South Africa* 4.8 1.7 1.5 Sweden 1.9 0.4 0.6 Switzerland 2.0 0.9 0.7 United States 1.7 0.7 0.7

*--*

* 70%-84% student response rate

** 50%-69% student response rate

Test Results

Students in their final year of secondary school

Significantly higher than international average: **

Not significantly different from international average: ***

Significantly lower than international average: ****

MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE LITERACY

*--*

Country Mean achievement* Netherlands 559** Sweden 555** Iceland 541** Norway 536** Switzerland 531** Denmark 528** Canada 526** New Zealand 525** Austria 519** Australia 525*** Slovenia 514*** France 505*** Germany 496*** Czech Republic 476*** Hungary 477**** Russian Federation 476**** Italy 475**** United States 471**** Lithuania 465**** Cyprus 447**** South Africa 352**** International average 500

*--*

* Because of potential statistical error and rounding, rankings may appear inconsistent.

SAMPLE QUESTIONS

GENERAL MATHEMATICS

Question: Experts say 25% of all serious bicycle accidents involve head injuries and that, of all head injuries, 80% are fatal. What percentage of all serious bicycle accidents involves fatal head injuries?

A. 16%

B. 20%

C. 55%

D. 105%

Correct answer: B

Fifty-seven percent of U.S. students answered correctly, compared with 64% of international students.

GENERAL SCIENCE

Question: Some high-heeled shoes are claimed to damage floors. The base diameter of these very high heels is about 0.5 centimeter and of ordinary heels about 3 cm. Briefly explain why the very high heels may cause damage to floors.

Correct answer examples:

* The pressure from the heel is greater because the area is smaller.

* Because of the narrow diameter of very high heels, all the body weight is spread over a smaller area. There is greater pressure exerted on the floor with the higher heels because it is all placed on a small area. The pressure is less on a wider heel because the weight is distributed over a greater area causing less damage.

U.S. average correct answer: 42%. International: 61%

PHYSICS

Question: A car moving at a constant speed with a siren sounding comes toward you and then passes by. Describe how the frequency of the sound you hear changes.

Correct answer examples:

* The pitch is higher as the car comes closer and lower after it goes by.

* When the car approaches, the wavelength of the sound is shorter than it is when the car moves away.

U.S. students answering correctly: 12%. International students: 37%

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