French students rank last in EU for maths, study finds


French students lag far behind their counterparts elsewhere in the European Union in both maths and science, an international report on education released on Tuesday showed.


France ranked last in mathematics and next to last in science among European Union nations, according to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a comparative report on student achievement.

French fourth-graders scored an average of 488 points in mathematics and 487 in science, below the international average of 500 and the European average of 527 in maths and 525 in science. (Fourth grade is equivalent to Year 4 in the UK, with students 8-9 years old.)

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem wasted no time in placing the blame for France’s poor showing squarely at the feet of Conservative presidential hopeful and former prime minister François Fillon.

Vallaud-Belkacem faulted the "weakness" of the education reforms introduced in 2008 (and since repealed) while Fillon was premier, which included cutting programmes for training new teachers.

“It was the students who entered kindergarten in 2011 who are – and I am weighing my words carefully – the sacrificed generation,” the minister said. “It is they who have paid a high price for the politics of yesterday – that is to say, the government of Mr. Fillon.”

The students scoring highest in fourth-grade mathematics hailed from East Asia, with Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and Japan outperforming all participating countries. Northern Ireland, the Russian Federation and Finland followed in sixth, seventh and eighth places. England was ranked number 10 while the United States came in at 14th place and Canada at 29th. France was ranked 35th – just above Turkey – of the 49 countries that took part.

East Asian countries were also strong in the sciences, as was Russia. Singapore, Korea, Japan, the Russian Federation, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei showed the highest achievement in fourth-grade science. The United States came in at 10th place, England in 15th and Canada at 23rd. France ranked 34th of the 47 countries surveyed, beating out fellow EU member Cyprus.

Global gains

The 2015 TIMSS results indicate that international achievement is up overall, with several notable improvements in areas that are often the most resistant to change.

“The positive trends indicate education is improving worldwide, and it’s not at the expense of equity between high and low achieving students,” said one of the study’s directors, Ina V.S. Mullis, in a statement. “Remarkably, many countries have been able to boost TIMSS scores across the achievement continuum and some have reduced achievement gaps as well.”

And more students are showing themselves capable of achieving at the study’s highest levels: More than 40 percent of the fourth-grade math and science students are showing exceptional achievement while 30 percent of those in the eighth grade are excelling.

Gender gaps in maths and science are also narrowing, the 2015 report showed. Longstanding disparities have seen a reduction, particularly in science and among eighth-graders.

"A lot of countries have been working hard to close that achievement gap, and have promoted girls' interest and participation in science," said Michael Martin, who co-directed the study with Mullis, in comments to AP.

Data aimed at policy change

More than 600,000 students took part in the 2015 TIMSS and TIMSS Advanced, an analysis of secondary school students. The TIMSS exams have been given every four years since 1995 and are the longest-running international assessment of mathematics and science education in the world.

The information they provide “enables participating countries to make evidence-based changes in educational policy”, the authors say.

“Officials have used TIMSS to monitor education systems’ effectiveness in a global context, identify gaps in resources and opportunities, pinpoint areas of weakness, and measure the impact of new initiatives.”

Thousands of international staff and collaborators – from government officials to researchers and teachers – take part in the study, which seeks to measure educational results fairly and accurately despite differences in language, culture and available resources.

“We have the common goal of improving education, and we don’t have any political agenda,” Martin said in a press release. “We also work to give people what they want – from designing the tests and what they measure to how to report the results.”

The study, which is sponsored by the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, is conducted out of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College's Lynch School of Education.

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