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National Overview: The Influence of Environmental Education on U.S. Performance in TIMSS vs. NAEP

The issuance of a new “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS) every four years is received with great anticipation by the k-12 education community, as it is the United States’ primary source for international comparative information on mathematics and science education in the primary and middle grades. Unfortunately, the results are often embarrassing for the U.S., as we barely make the top 25% of participating nations in some scores and barely even the top 50% in other cases.

Why does the US fare so poorly in science? A recent study, “Comparing Science Content in the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2000 and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003 Assessments” compared TIMMSS scores with those of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) to find some answers. NAEP is the United States’ source for nationally representative and continuing information on what American students know and can do and is commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. NAEP has periodically collected and reported data on achievement in reading, mathematics, science, and other subjects for students in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades.

This study found that the relative lack of environmental education in the U.S. compared to other participating countries is a significant factor in the disappointing performance of U.S. students in the TIMSS scores, as described below (1) :

“In comparison to NAEP, whose framework was developed in the context of the U.S. system, the TIMSS framework reflects a consensus across many countries. Some of the differences in curricula across these countries are reflected in the frameworks and the differences in content between the two assessments. In particular, the inclusion in TIMSS of separate content areas in chemistry, physics, and environmental science results in broader topic coverage in some areas…

“There are some similarities and differences between NAEP and TIMSS at the framework level, with NAEP defining science content in three broad fields of science (physical science, life science, and Earth science), and TIMSS including five content domains (physics, chemistry, life science, Earth science, and environmental science). Both NAEP and TIMSS include content areas related to life science and Earth science, which appear to be defined similarly based on the topic areas included in the framework. The two frameworks differ, however, in how the physical sciences are organized, with TIMSS having separate content domains for chemistry and physics. TIMSS also includes a separate content domain for environmental science, which includes topics related to environmental and resource issues that go across the fields of science in NAEP. The inclusion in TIMSS of separate content areas in chemistry, physics, and environmental science results in broader topic coverage in some areas. The differences at the framework level are translated into different emphases in the pool of items included in each assessment, even in the content areas of life science and Earth science where there is considerable overlap of the topic areas in the frameworks…

“Environmental science: While only TIMSS includes this area as a separate content domain, more than 70 percent of TIMSS environmental science items were classified to topics in the NAEP framework across the fields of science, but primarily in Earth science. Still, a number of TIMSS items in this content domain (29 percent at grade 4 and 30 percent at grade 8) were classified at a different grade level in the NAEP framework. Also, several items (29 percent at grade 4 and 22 percent at grade 8) were found not to match any of the NAEP topics; these items cover a range of TIMSS framework objectives related to human use of natural resources as well as global and local environmental issues due to human and natural causes.”


(1) Comparing Science Content in the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2000 and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003 Assessments (U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. 2006. Page 69 (first paragraph) and Executive Summary, Pages iv - vi