TIMMS test results spark controversy

This past fortnight I have talked about my schools performance on national tests to school council [NAPLAN] and now I’ve seen lots of editorials and responses in newspapers about Australia’s performance in the recent international tests in maths and science for years 4 and 8 students called TIMMS.

Kevin Donnelly wrote in the Australian that TIMMS showed we have a crisis in schools and that our students are under performing. He made suggestions that greater competition between schools and more external exams are part of successful educations systems who ranked higher than us. His comments caused quite a stir if the public comments attached to his article are any measure.

Marjorie Scardino from the UK wrote in the Guardian about a global skills race and that success wasn’t tied to class size or facilities but the care and attention better performing education systems had on 3 things: individual students and learning how to learn, the use of technology to support learning and selecting and training passionate teachers.   

James O’Loanwrote in the Courier about the Queensland Premier Anna Bligh calling for an urgent review of the education systems as students from her state had underperformed in both the national tests [NAPLAN] that I referred to and the TIMMS tests when compared to other states in Australian.

Samantha Maidenwrote in the Australian about the Federal Minister for Education Juila Gillard comments that while we are significantly above the standards in Year 4 we are starting at fall behind as the Year 8 results in science have slipped. Juila Gillard renewed her call for a national curriculum to boost student performance. 

All this sent me to read for myself the TIMMS results as published by ACER – press release and report

The results were mixed with year 4 students performing significantly above international benchmarks in mathematics with an improved score from the 2003 tests. Similar to another international test, PISA, the results in year 4 maths show smaller percentages of students performing well above the standards when compared to other better performing countries [Korea] and unlike other countries boys continuing to outperform girls. Science scores in year 4 whilst still above international benchmarks remained roughly the same as in 2003. In year 8 the results had decreased slightly and were at the international benchmark for maths and had decreased for science. The surrounding Asian countries like Korea and Singapore had significantly more of the top ranked students 41% of scores when compared to Australia at only 9%.

What is the significance of these results for both Years 4 and 8 and what might we want to do about it?

Lots of comments are made about curriculum being it national, state, independent vs public. Some comments are made about teachers not being qualified to teach their subjects, some about homework, and some about funding schools. Perhaps from a Principal’s perspective the following comments about what we might learn and action are:

  • teaching mathematics in primary schools to about year 3 is generally being done well given the TIMMS results. The temptation is push students very early onto equations and advanced applications as we can see the evidence of work – I say remain focused on learning key mathematical understandings, continue to use concrete materials to demonstrate learning and at around years 5 and 6 start to layer these understandings to solve “real problems” so that these basic understandings are applied.
  • curriculum needs to have rich tasks [both explicit in focus and layered in deeper understandings] and responsive to individual students needs. This means we need more assessments for learning, time for teachers to analyse results and adapt lessons, additional support so that we can close the achievement gap early on, and rich tasks so that mathematical tasks offer single entry points for all but multiple exits points for those at the top end of achievement to extend their performance. Even if we have a national curriculum it still needs to be responsive so that we don’t fall into testing for compliance rather than assessments for learning.
  • investing in curriculum needs to balanced with investing in strengthening instruction  
  • provide professional learning opportunities and materials for teachers in primary school so that they can learn the scientific principles behind the curriculum and more fully embed technology into learning in classrooms

Perhaps my final comment is more a reflection or warning on the status of teaching in our country. Almost universally successful education systems have cultures which elevate the status of teaching so that it is a noble profession one young people aspire to. We have become a country of “knockers” who are quick to abuse and blame the very people we want to inspire our youth. This week I have had to support teachers in tears and in anger as some parents make public judgements in deeds and words about them.  We lose our young teachers and the older generation of teachers are retiring. We need to attract the brightest, pay the best and passionate and support all in the quest to improve our youth’s learning.