Singapore students top maths, science rankings for second consecutive edition of international study

This is the third time students here have topped the charts across all categories in the study. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Students here have taken the top spot in mathematics and science for the second consecutive edition of an international study.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) takes place once every four years, and tests students at the grade four and grade eight levels. These are equivalent to Primary 4 and Secondary 2 here respectively.

Results for the 2019 edition of the study were released on Tuesday (Dec 8). The test was administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a non-profit research cooperative based in Amsterdam.

At both levels and for both subjects, Singapore students came out on top in 2019, beating students from other East Asian territories like Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

This is the third time students here have topped the charts across all categories in the study since its inception in 1995, with the other two sweeps coming in the 2015 and 2003.

The 2019 study included 72 education systems, with Singapore represented by some 5,990 Primary 4 pupils from all 186 public primary schools here, and 4,850 Sec 2 students from all 152 public secondary schools. All the students were randomly selected, said the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Some 330,000 Primary 4-level pupils participated in the study internationally, along with 250,000 students at the Sec 2 level.

Students from China - who placed first in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study in 2018 ahead of Singapore students - were not part of the Timss study.

While Timss monitors the understanding, application and reasoning of students in maths and science every four years, Pisa assesses the capacity of 15-year-old students to apply knowledge and skills in reading, maths and science, as well as their ability to solve problems in a variety of real-life situations using these skills.

Singapore was the only education system where more than half the students achieved scores of at least 625 for mathematics, the cut-off score for the highest tier - the "advanced" benchmark - on Timss' four-tier banding system.

Students who attain the highest "advanced" band are highly competent in the subject, demonstrating a high level of understanding and ability to apply and reason in the subject, while those who attain the "low" band show only basic knowledge in the particular subject expected at the particular grade.

Some 54 per cent of Primary 4 pupils here met the advanced benchmark for maths, compared with the global median of 7 per cent, while 51 per cent of Sec 2 students reached the same mark, compared with the global median of 5 per cent.

The average scores of Primary 4 and Sec 2 students for maths here were 625 and 616 respectively, beating Primary 4-equivalent students from Hong Kong who had scores of 602, and Sec 2-equivalent students in Taiwan whose average score was 612.

Dr Ridzuan Abdul Rahim, senior assistant director and master specialist in mathematics at MOE, said: “The focus is on problem solving in mathematics. To do this, we emphasise student understanding of concepts and proficiencies in mathematical skills and processes.”

Dr Ridzuan added: “The student performance in Timss has shown that they are able to apply and use their reasoning skills.” He said the students’ performance in the study was “very encouraging”.

Students here meeting the "advanced" benchmark for science also trumped the global average, with 38 per cent of Primary 4 pupils making the grade, compared with the global median of six per cent. The figures were 48 per cent and seven per cent respectively for Sec 2 students.

While Primary 4 pupils here scored an average of 595 in science, out-performing second-placed South Korea's score of 588, Sec 2 students here scored an average of 608, beating their counterparts from Taiwan who scored a mean of 574.

The performance of Sec 2 students in science was Singapore's best showing in a Timss study.

Ms Anna Koh, a master teacher in biology at MOE’s Academy of Singapore Teachers, said the record performance of Sec 2 students in science shows “the inquiry-based learning approaches that we advocate, which our teachers are using in the teaching and learning of science, have gone a long way in helping our students develop core 21st century competencies such as critical thinking”.

“For example, our teachers do not just teach science content, they ensure that students understand the scientific concepts, often presented in real-world contexts, which they apply in different situations,” said Ms Koh

She added: “Teachers also encourage students to ask questions, collect evidence to support their learning, and use the knowledge to address questions. It’s about getting our students curious about science, so that they are motivated and want to learn better.”

In addition, the percentage of those who did not qualify for the lowest banding across both subjects, requiring scores of at least 400, was lower than the international median.

Between 1 and 2 per cent of students tested did not meet the "low" band, compared with the global median of between 8 and 15 per cent, depending on subject and grade.

MOE director-general of education Wong Siew Hoong said: "Given the proliferation of technology in our lives and the growing importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem)-related competencies such as mathematical and scientific reasoning, problem-solving and critical thinking, it is encouraging that our students continue to do very well in mathematics and science by international standards and have positive attitudes towards learning these subjects.

"Their mastery of numeracy and scientific literacy will provide them with a strong foundation to develop other skills in life and enable them to seize opportunities in the workplace, particularly in the Stem-related fields."

Despite the good showing across both subjects, the study showed that students here indicated less confidence in learning maths and science compared with their international peers.

About two in 10 Primary 4 pupils and about one in 10 Sec 2 students reported being very confident in learning maths, compared with global figures of three in 10 and two in 10 respectively.

Likewise, for science, about two in 10 of Primary 4 and Sec 2 students reported being very confident in learning the subject, compared with about four in 10 and two in 10 respectively around the globe.

The MOE said this self-reported lack of confidence "is similarly observed in other Asian education systems, and could be related to the cultures of these systems".

It added that it "will continue to work closely with parents and other stakeholders to help our students learn deeply, while fostering a stronger sense of confidence so that they can enjoy learning and maintain a strong desire to learn".

The ministry also said the study showed students here who are academically weaker achieved scores that are among the highest across all participating systems.

Those at the 5th percentile achieved scores across all subjects and levels of at least 439, above the 400 needed to qualify for the “low” band.

Ms Koh said: “We believe that every child can and wants to learn, and teachers here are equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify the learning needs of students who may be not be progressing at the same pace.

“Teachers differentiate their instruction so that these students are given the guidance and support they need, including appropriate pitching and pacing in the learning of the content to ensure all students learn and are kept up to speed."

MOE said it will continue to help students across all academic abilities achieve “as high a level as they are capable of, by continuing to support those who need more help and encouraging the pursuit of excellence across the board”.

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