Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)View Best in Class
TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is an established system of international achievement tests for fourth- and eighth-grade students. The IAEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) directs the program and cooperating organizations in several countries, including the U.S., oversee aspects of its management and design of the several assessments.
Organization of the Framework
The TIMSS Framework deals at length with general characteristics of science, with questions of science-subject-matter inclusion or exclusion, and, specifically, with details of test-item construction for the two tested grade levels. While the document is not intended as an explicit set of K-12 science-learning standards, the information provided in the assessment framework clearly provides an implicit standards scheme. This Framework is disciplined and to the point; it elucidates and undertakes to justify its selections of science content to be assessed. In this it succeeds, despite minor concerns to be noted herein. For the purposes of this review, then, we evaluate TIMSSâ€™s implied standards for fourth- and eighth-grade science along its two primary dimensions: content and cognition. We evaluate both for the dimensionsâ€™ content and rigor as well as clarity and specificity. (We use the same criteria and metric here as we did for the State of State Science Standards 2012.)
TIMSS defines its content dimension as: â€œspecifying the subject matter domains to be assessed within science (for example, biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science at the eighth grade)â€ and its cognitive dimension as: â€œskills and behaviorsâ€¦that is, knowing, applying, and reasoningâ€). Fourth-grade science-subject matter is in life science, physical science, and earth science, while the eighth-grade topics are biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. The cognitive domains (knowing, applying, and reasoning) are represented at both grade levels, but their levels of emphasis differ. Reasoning, for example, is dubbed an explicit element in 30 percent of assessment items for the eighth grade, but in only 20 percent at fourth grade.
Content and Rigor
The Frameworkâ€™s Exhibit 6 reproduced here, lists all content and cognitive domains for the fourth- and eighth-grade assessments, together with the percentage of emphasis or test time to be allotted to each.
Exhibit 6: Target Percentages of the TIMSS 2011 Science Assessment Devoted to Content and Cognitive Domains at Fourth and Eighth Grades
|Fourth Grade||Eighth Grade|
It is important to note that TIMSS does not test the two primary dimensions of achievement in isolation; in fact, and to their great credit, the developers reject the notion, popular among educationists, that cognitive achievementsâ€”such as identifying relevant data, designing an experiment, or isolating variables of interest, that is, â€œscientific inquiryâ€â€”can be assessed (or taught) independently of substantive science content. For example:
The TIMSS 2011 Science Framework takes the position that the understandings and abilities required to engage in [scientific inquiry] should not be assessed in isolation. Rather, scientific inquiry should be assessed in the context of one or other of the science content domains and drawing upon the full range of skills specified in the cognitive domains. Accordingly, assessment items addressing aspects of scientific inquiry are included within the two dimensions of the [Framework].
To this end, TIMSS assessment designers pay close attention to which skills (of cognition) are needed to answer satisfactorily which questions (of science content).
Fourth-Grade Content Covered
As described above, the TIMSS content domains for grade four are life science, physical science, and earth science. Each of these is subdivided into a series of topic areas.
For example, the fourth-grade life science domain comprises:
- Characteristics and life processes of living things;
- Life cycles, reproduction, and heredity;
- Interaction with the environment;
- Ecosystems; and
- Human health.
Each such topic is expanded and represented, in turn, by a series of action statements that imply standards of performance. For example, under â€œcharacteristics and life processesâ€ for fourth-grade life science, there are four statements. The first of them is:
Describe the differences between living and nonliving things; identify common characteristics of living things (e.g., in reproduction, growth, basic needs for air, food, water). (grade 4)
Each of the remaining four topics within the life science domain has two or three associated action statements, for a total of thirteen. These action items are what we hereafter call standards, for that is what they areâ€”demonstrations of knowledge that require a learner to describe, compare, relate X to Y, trace, or associate.
Fourth-grade physical science has three topic areas:
- Classification and properties of matter;
- Sources and effects of energy; and
- Forces and motion.
As in the case of life science, each of these expands to a series of standards. Thus for the topic area, â€œclassification and properties of matter,â€ the first of four standards (action statements) is:
Name three states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) and describe characteristic differences in shape and volume of each state; recognize that matter can be changed from one state to another by heating or cooling and describe these changes in terms of melting, freezing, boiling, evaporation, or condensation. (grade 4)
In total, there are twenty-nine science standardsâ€”as we have identified them hereâ€”for grade four. These twenty-nine include all twelve items on our â€œCommon Grading Metricâ€ for grade four (see Appendix A: Methods, Criteria, and Grading Metric; State of State Science Standards 2012), with one exception: simple machines. Otherwise, the difference between the two lists lies in specificity and prose, and to its credit the TIMSS version is fuller than our (designedly) minimal one.
Eighth-Grade Content Covered
The TIMSS eighth-grade test framework covers four content domains: biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science (as noted above). Following the usual TIMSS organization, each of these is represented in a series of topic areas. For example, physics has the following five:
- Physical states and changes in matter;
- Energy transformations, heat, and temperature;
- Light and sound;
- Electricity and magnetism; and
- Forces and motion.
As with the fourth-grade topic areas, each of these is further represented by a series of action statements describing expectations for student performance. For example, the first of four standards under â€œforces and motionâ€ is:
Describe the motion (uniform and non-uniform) of an object in terms of its position, direction, and speed; describe general types of forces (e.g., weight as a force due to gravity, contact force, buoyant force, friction); predict changes in motion (if any) of an object based on the forces acting on it. (grade 8)
In biology there are seventeen standards; for chemistry, there are ten; for physics, thirteen; and for earth science, tenâ€”for a total of fifty. This is a notably longer list than our own statement of desirable content coverage for eighth grade (see Appendix A: Methods, Criteria, and Grading Metric; State of State Science Standards 2012). But as before, the difference is in the greater specificity andâ€”especiallyâ€”the focus on cognitive actions of the TIMSS set.
Despite the laudable completeness of these standards, a few omissions are not entirely innocuous.
Lacking in TIMSS eighth-grade earth science is any explicit coverage of plate tectonics beyond the two words â€œplate movements.â€ Perhaps the writers intend for the big subject of plate tectonics to be handled adequately under such heads as â€œerosion,â€ â€œvolcanic activity,â€ and â€œmountain building,â€ but that is uncertain. Yet the unfolding story of discovery associated with plate tectonics is one of the great tales of modern geologic science, and it is almost the whole mechanistic story of catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Moreover the essentials of the story, if not the detailed interactions of theory and observation, are accessible to eighth-grade students. In short, the relevant standard here, at least as written in the Framework, is somewhat deficient in this respect as guidance for eighth-grade curriculum development in earth science. As for physics and space science, we would have liked to see somewhat more attention than is actually given to extrasolar astronomy
Rather more important is the absence of the word â€œevolutionâ€ from these standards. It appears nowhere in the forty-one pages of the Frameworkâ€™s science chapter. Some topics of evolutionary biology are addressed, and competently so, in such terms as â€œdiversity, adaptation, and natural selection,â€ â€œchanges of Earthâ€™s life forms over time,â€ and the need to relate â€œsurvival or extinction of species to variation in physical/behavioral characteristicsâ€¦in a changing environment.â€ These are admirably present and are of the first importance, even at the eighth-grade level. But the word â€œevolution,â€ to which they all refer, does not appear in connection with any of them.
It is possible but unlikely that this is no more than a lapse. More likely, TIMSS designers recognize the importance and necessity of the topic but simply omit the name. This way, they avoid objections in countries where anti-evolutionism is common or at least politically correct. Whether or not this is so, the omission itself is not trivial. If modern science is to be taught and learned in the primary and middle grades, all those correct statements about biotic change over time, about the mutability of species and the mechanisms of change, should be recognized by students under the correct name for the generalization: evolution.
Taken as a whole, however, TIMSS content for fourth- and eighth-graders is creditably inclusive, and the justifications provided for the learning expectations set forth in the Framework are convincing. What might appear to a geology-aware reader as slighting of plate tectonics is a small concern, but the absence of â€œevolutionâ€ is a rather bigger one. Still and all, the TIMSS Science Frameworks earn a six out of seven for content and rigor. (See Appendix A: Methods, Criteria, and Grading Metric; State of State Science Standards 2012.)
Clarity and Specificity
The TIMSS Assessment Frameworks document is well organized; its prose is clear and generally free from jargon. The hierarchical arrangement of subject matterâ€”with broad (and fully recognizable) â€œdomainsâ€ at the top, carefully selected â€œtopic areasâ€ in the middle, and well-phrased statements of expectationâ€”at the bottom, is logical and transparent. As such, the science sections of this comprehensive document are accessible to all potential users, including curriculum planners, classroom teachers, and the parents of test-takers. While the pages devoted to science are not intended to function as a comprehensive set of science standards, they offer, in effect, usable standards for Kindergarten through grade eight and earn a three out of three for clarity and specificity. (See Appendix A: Methods, Criteria, and Grading Metric; State of State Science Standards 2012.)
Our review ofState Standards