English 10 and 14 year-olds’ science performance is similar to Hong Kong despite English 10 year-olds doing less well than previously. But England, Hong Kong and USA fail to reach levels predicted by results of 10 year-olds in 2007.

Janet Downs's picture
Five years ago English pupils were at the top of the European league in the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS). Although the performance of English pupils in TIMSS 2011 remains high, their position at the top has fallen.

However, international rankings are “volatile” and performance shouldn’t be judged solely on league table position. English 10 year-olds scored significantly above the centre point of the international scale although eight countries, including Finland, USA and four Pacific Rim countries, scored significantly higher than England. Countries where the performance of 10 year-olds was similar to England’s include Hong Kong, Sweden and Germany. The 31 countries which scored significantly less included Slovenia, Australia and Northern Ireland where maths results had been particularly high.

The performance of English 14 year-olds in science has been consistently high since 1995. Only five countries scored significantly more: Singapore, Chinese Tapei, Korea, Japan and Finland. Five countries performed at a similar level including Slovenia, Hong Kong and USA. The 31 countries which scored significantly lower than England included Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

Despite this strong showing at age 14, the score was actually lower than should have been expected based on the 2007 results. The 14 year-olds taking the 2011 TIMSS test would have been in the 2007 cohort so it’s possible to measure against expected performance. 14 year-olds in Hong Kong and USA also didn’t reach the level predicted at age 10.

The Department for Education (DfE) concentrated mainly on rankings in its press release although it added a warning at the bottom of “Notes to editors” that “relative comparisons need to be made with care”. But this caveat was undermined by copious commentary about league table positions.

Although attainment in Year 5 science has declined since 2007, the score is still significantly high and on a par with Hong Kong, top-performer in the 2011 PISA tests. It is, therefore, rather an exaggeration for the DfE to describe this fall as a “major concern”. It’s a concern, yes, but not catastrophic.

The fall coincides with the ending of Key Stage 2 Science Tests but correlation should not be confused with causation. However, the DfE believes removing these tests caused the decline and thinks standards can only rise when there are externally marked tests. “Teacher assessment alone cannot improve, or even maintain, standards,” the DfE says. Yet most countries don’t have high-stakes tests at age 10 - they postpone them until the end of secondary education (see faqs above). Perhaps the opposite is true: perhaps abandoning Key Stage 2 tests would free up time to spend on other subjects.

But the Government seems to value only what can be measured. To Michael Gove, anything that can’t be assessed is mere play.

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