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What High-Scoring Countries Do Right in Math, Reading, and Science

A new study analyzes the results of international math, reading, and science tests and provides a profile of the practices that schools, parents, and teachers in the highest-scoring countries have in common.

The TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center released the study today. It was made possible by the fact that the TIMSS, which assesses math and science achievement, and the PIRLS, which gauges reading skill, were given at the same time in 2011. That enabled the test administrators at Boston College to synthesize information from the two in order to make observations about what they called "the culture of educational excellence."

They used data from 34 participating countries to offer some analysis at the 4th grade level. They focused on about half of those countries, where took 90 percent of 4th graders scored at a basic level of proficiency in all three subjects, and in particular, on five nations that educated 35 percent of their 4th graders to a high level of achievement in all three: Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong and Russia.

Ina V.S. Mullis and Michael O. Martin, the executive directors of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, said in a statement that while each country had its own unique strengths and approaches to education, "the analyses presented in this report suggest that, across countries, there are a number of school and home factors that can positively affect student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science at the fourth grade."

One key finding concerned the pivotal role of good reading skills. Not only do strong skills drive high achievement in literacy, but they facilitate high achievement in math and science, too, where students often must read complex material to solve problems.

Far more details are in the full report, which is on the study center's website, but here are some highlights.

School conditions that correlate with higher student achievement in reading, math, and science:

• All parties—principals, teachers, parents and students—are "equally invested" in working together to achieve success;

• Teachers understand curricular goals;

• Teachers are successful implementing curriculum;

• Teachers expect student achievement;

• Parents support student achievement;

• Students want to do well in school; and

• The school provides a safe and orderly environment by maintaining discipline and reducing frequency of bullying.

What teachers do that correlates with higher student achievement in reading, math, and science:

• Making sure students know what they're expected to do;

• Making sure students like what they're reading;

• Trying to be easily understood;

• Presenting content in interesting ways; and

• Giving students interesting things to do and read.

What parents do that correlates with higher student achievement:

• Creating a home environment supportive of educational attainment, with a lot of books available; and

• Reading books, telling stories, singing songs, playing with alphabet toys, reading signs and labels aloud, and playing word games.

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