APS News

Physicist Takes a Look at TIMSS

By Gabriel Popkin

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has given rise to considerable hand-wringing among US educators and policy makers due to US students’ poor performance. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in February in Washington, DC, physicist Chad Orzel said that TIMSS physics questions were generally aligned with standard US high school physics curricula, but he also suggested ways to improve the next round of the test.

TIMSS is a major international math and science assessment designed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Although portions of TIMSS are conducted every four years, the high school portion that includes physics has only been given twice, in 1995 and 2008. In 1995, US high school seniors taking the test scored poorly, underperforming their peers in every other country tested. In 2008, the US did not participate, in part due to insufficient funding at the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which manages US participation in various international assessments. NCES officials also questioned whether students graduating from secondary school around the world form a comparable cohort.

Orzel, who is a professor of physics at Union College in Schenectady, New York, said that he approached the topic by asking the question, “Would this make our [physics professors’] job easier?” He concluded, “If my incoming students could answer the TIMSS physics questions, it would make my job considerably easier.”

Orzel’s analysis covered 39 physics questions that were released from TIMSS 2008, which was given to students graduating from high school in nine countries. While Orzel did not seek to explain US students’ prior poor performance, he noted that two of the major topic areas covered by TIMSS—heat and temperature, and atomic and nuclear physics—receive what he termed “extremely variable” coverage in US state standards. Speaking about his faculty colleagues, Orzel said, “We tend to assume that first-year college students have seen nothing but mechanics and very basic E&M.”

Orzel also observed that the released TIMSS questions tend to emphasize computational skill, rather than conceptual understanding of physics. Many physics education research studies have shown that students can often solve seemingly complex physics problems without understanding the concepts underlying the problems.

Orzel did not discuss typical physics curricula in other countries, but Alka Arora of the International Study Center, the Massachusetts-based center that administers TIMSS, discussed the different physics experiences offered to students in participating countries. In the nine countries that participated in the TIMSS 2008 physics assessment, students taking the test had received physics instruction in at least two, and as many as five, years before graduating from secondary school. In comparison, most US students who take physics at all take it for only one year, according to data from the American Institute of Physics.

APS and other professional physics societies have long been concerned about US students’ dismal performance on international assessments. “TIMSS results since 1995 do not give us any reason to believe US physics education has improved since then,” says Monica Plisch, Assistant Director of Education at APS. “A major factor is the broken system for preparing physics teachers, as documented by the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics.”

TIMSS Advanced will be given again in 2015. If the US participates, educators and policy makers may gain another look into how our students stack up against their international peers.

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Editor: Alan Chodos