Northern Irish 10 year-olds among top performers in global Maths test, English pupils not far behind

Janet Downs's picture

Northern Irish 10 year-olds match the world’s best in maths, the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS) 2011 found. Northern Ireland was the only European country among seven top performers – the others were five Pacific Rim countries and one American state (North Carolina). English 10-year olds appeared in the next group of eight which included Finland and USA (as a whole). These significantly outscored the remaining forty-two participants which included Germany, Sweden, Australia and three Canadian provinces (Quebec, Ontario and Alberta).

Overall, Northern Irish 10 year-olds were 6th and English pupils 11th= out of 57.

While it’s true that English pupils fell relatively down the league table that’s because the number of participants increased. However, the score rose from 541 to 542 although this is statistically insignificant.

How did English* 14 year-olds do? They were 9th***. Only six countries (all but one in the Pacific Rim) and four North American jurisdictions scored significantly above English 14 year-olds. Nevertheless, this meant that English 14 year-olds were average performers rather than top performers as in 2007. The average group included Finland, Australia and USA (as a whole). Thirty participants scored significantly below England including New Zealand and Sweden.

In all countries that took part in TIMSS 2007 and 2011, the same cohort would have taken the tests. It is, therefore, possible to track pupils’ progress over four years. England was one of several participants where the relative level of mathematics attainment shown by primary school pupils did not continue into secondary school. This applied to other participants including USA (as a whole), Australia, Sweden and Hong Kong. Pupils in only three jurisdictions improved relative attainment significantly between 2007 and 2011: Singapore, Chinese Taipei and the Canadian province of Quebec. In many participating regions, the relative attainment of this cohort stayed at a similar level which implies their primary and secondary schools supported pupils’ maths progress to a similar extent.

The Department for Education (DfE) downplayed the achievement of English 10 year-olds in maths – it doesn’t fit the “plummeting” down league table narrative. However, the DfE is right to be concerned about an apparent slackening off in maths between age 10 and 14. But the DfE doesn’t address this. Instead, it says it’s overhauling the primary maths curriculum to provide “a solid grounding in the basics early in primary schools” even though TIMSS showed that English primary school pupils are already among the best performers. It’s unclear how changing an apparently successful curriculum will “drive up standards”.

The Government says it’s going copy “the world’s most successful education states”. But TIMSS ranks England among the top ten high-achieving countries in primary maths. Instead of building on this the Government uses these results, together with TIMSS science** and positive PIRLS, to hype the academy programme and proposed primary curriculum. It says it’s going to introduce “new rigorous exams that will be on a par with the best”. They won’t be, because most countries have graduation at 18. And quite how introducing more “rigorous” exams at 16 would improve international test results at ages 10 and 14 is unexplained.

*Northern Ireland did not enter 14 year-olds for the maths test.

**An analysis of these will be published later.

***Ranking should be used with caution as there may be little difference in scores. Note: I originally said England was 19th. It should have said 9th. This typo has been corrected.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 19/12/2012 - 13:23

Proof indeed that we need to abandon the strategies of working on applied and extended maths to improve our PISA scores in order to return to the kind of traditional teaching demanded by Gove which TIMSS tests.

Well I'm sure it will be in Gove's hands somehow....

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/12/2012 - 17:05

Rebecca - I'm not a maths teacher so I don't know what could cause the apparent lack of progress between primary school and secondary school. Could it be that secondary schools aren't building on the firm foundations established in primary schools? Or is it because primary schools children only have a superficial knowledge which got them through tests but isn't firm enough to underpin more complex mathematical problems? Is "rapid progress" being favoured over "deep learning"?

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