In 2019 England participated for the 7th time in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Our research team at UCL Institute of Education in London are interested in how the TIMSS results relate to what we already know about pupils of a similar age – Years 6 and 11 – gleaned from the National Pupil Database and key stage 2 tests/GCSEs. We looked at the 2019 data rather than data from 2020 or 2021 for two reasons – that was the year of the TIMSS study but more importantly it was the last year unaffected by Covid-19.
As the recruitment of schools for TIMSS 2023 field trials and main study begins, here is a taster of the kinds of things we can learn about pupils’ outlooks and skills. Figures 1 and 2 show how Year 5 participants in TIMSS scored well above the international average (for more on this, see the England Report TIMSS2019). In mathematics 21% of our pupils achieved the TIMSS advanced benchmark and 83% at least the intermediate benchmark.
Figure 1: TIMSS Year 5 mathematics achievement
In science 10% of our pupils achieved the advanced benchmark and 81% at least the intermediate benchmark.
Figure 2: TIMSS Year 5 science achievement
The TIMSS assessments and the key stage 2 tests are different, of course, so direct comparison in not possible. Key stage 2 tests report pupils’ attainment against standards. In 2019 27% of pupils reached the high standard and 79% achieved the expected standard. In science we have teacher-assessed outcomes; 83% of pupils reached the expected standard.
Figure 3: percentage of pupils in year 6 who reached the expected standard in Maths and Science
The key stage test chart shows the percentage of the year 6 cohorts reaching the ‘expected standard’ in each of mathematics and science, and suggests that about 80% of the cohort is reaching that. End of key stage 2 tests assess curriculum material that is well-aligned with that targeted in TIMSS, but the TIMSS questions are slightly different, with TIMSS having greater emphasis placed on cross-topic and unstructured questions. It would be useful for us to understand, for example, to what extent it is the same pupils who are struggling with each set of assessments, and what it is that is holding them back is struggling to understand the basic mathematical and scientific concepts.
At Year 9 TIMSS mathematics and science scores were again above the international average. In mathematics 69% of 2019 year 9 students attained at least an Intermediate benchmark. GCSE results of the 2019 cohort of year 11s, two years older, show 72% gaining a grade 4+. GCSE measures something slightly different from TIMSS, but it would be useful to know if it is the same approximately 30% of students who find it difficult to master each of these assessments – and to understand, and address that.
In science the 2019 year 9 TIMSS results showed a disappointing downturn in what had been a fairly stable picture, with less that 70% of the cohort attaining at least the Intermediate benchmark. The comparison with GCSE is harder than with mathematics, because some students take separate science GCSEs and some a double award combined science, but across the 2019 GCSE cohort about 66% gained a grade 4+ in science(s); again highly comparable with the TIMSS Intermediate benchmark.
It’s important to remember this cohort is two years older than the TIMSS cohort, although at this scale we would expect successive cohorts to perform at similar levels, and the assessments measure slightly different aspects of students’ science capability.
Figure 4: TIMSS Year 9 mathematics achievement
Figure 5: TIMSS Year 9 science achievement
But it’s not just about scores. TIMSS has a lot of other potentially useful information about different groups of learners. For example in TIMSS 2019 there were no significant differences in scores between girls and boys, but there were differences in attitude. Gender differences were clear in questions asked about confidence as well as liking for subject. Overall the more confident pupils were and the more they enjoyed the subject, the better they performed, however, girls were significantly less confident and liked the subjects less. This matters because we know that confidence and enjoyment affect whether young people choose to continue engaging with mathematics or science once they are no longer compulsory. Both TIMSS and national testing in 2019 highlighted few differences among pupils of different ethnicities, as well as for those with and without English as an additional language.
Socio-economic status makes a bigger difference both in TIMSS and national testing and this reflects the on-going challenge within education. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds performed less well in TIMSS 2019 than their more advantaged peers. Pupils who had been eligible for FSM performed significantly lower than their non-eligible peers across both year groups and both subjects. Year 9 pupils with many resources at home – such as books, Internet connections and having their own room – had higher scores than peers with fewer resources.
In the 2019 key stage 2 tests, 51% of disadvantaged pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths compared to 71% of all other pupils. GCSE grade 4 and above told the same tale – 41% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved this standard; 69% of those not eligible for FSM did.
Finally, what does TIMSS tell us about the potential influence of school environments? In both subjects and for both year groups the greater emphasis schools placed on academic success, the higher the pupils’ achievement. The less that pupils were adversely impacted by discipline, safety, orderliness and bullying issues, the higher their average achievement. These are associations rather than causes, of course. Confidence and enjoyment, as well as orderly and respectful environments seem to be associated with higher scores.
The confidence and enjoyment of girls, and pupils with lower socio-economic status in mathematics and science, as well as the attainment of the latter, remain challenges if all our young people are to thrive personally and in employment, and one that will remain in the forefront of our minds as we move to TIMSS 2023.