Findings from the TIMSS 2019 Problem Solving and Inquiry Tasks

Ina V.S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, Bethany Fishbein, Pierre Foy, and Sebastian Moncaleano


Dirk Hastedt
Executive Director, IEA

TIMSS (the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is the largest and most comprehensive large-scale assessment of mathematics and science for primary and secondary education. It is truly a global enterprise studying the primary and secondary education with more than 70 education systems participating worldwide. TIMSS was first conducted in 1995, and has continued every four years since that date, and as such, has the longest trends of mathematics and science achievement. The richness of TIMSS is not only the availability of achievement measures but also the rich background information collected from the assessed students, their mathematics and science teachers, school principals, parents of the grade four students, as well as system level data. This offers a holistic perspective of the education in the participating countries.

With the 2019 cycle of TIMSS, an additional source of information has been recorded, as the study starts to move to a computer-based assessment format. Out of the education systems participating in TIMSS 2019, 36 of the fourth grade participants and 27 of the eighth grade participants transferred to a computer-based format of the test. This is not only beneficial in terms of matching the mode of the assessment to the reality of teaching and learning in the 21st century, but also allows additional information on how students maneuvered through the test to be captured. New innovative item formats can be administered on a digital device which are engaging and capture aspects of learning that otherwise are very difficult to record. This makes the assessment more enjoyable for participating students, and at the same time creates richer data to be analyzed by researchers.

TIMSS is a flagship study of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an independent, international cooperative of national educational research institutions and governmental research agencies dedicated to improving education. IEA’s mission is to enhance knowledge about education systems worldwide and to provide high-quality data that will support education reform and lead to better teaching and learning in schools. The TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College has led TIMSS since the first cycle conducted in 1995 and has studied every four years the achievement of fourth and eighth grade students in countries all around the world—always developing the study further while still maintaining reliable and accurate trend measures. TIMSS 2019, the seventh TIMSS cycle, mastered a new challenge by transitioning to computer-based assessment while still maintaining the 24-year-long trend lines. IEA is extremely proud to work together with this fabulous group of dedicated and recognized researchers.

While conducting TIMSS 2019, the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center worked closely with the staff of IEA in their offices in Amsterdam and in Hamburg, as well as Statistics Canada and the Educational Testing Service. Essential for TIMSS—and all other IEA studies—is the close cooperation with the experts from the participating countries who are not only responsible for conducting the study in their respective countries, but also contributing substantially to the study framework, instruments, procedures, and reports. Without these dedicated researchers from around the world, TIMSS surely wouldn’t achieve the quality and recognition that it currently has. Additional input was also gathered from specialist committees like the Science and Mathematics Item Review Committee (SMIRC) and the Questionnaire Item Review Committee (QIRC).

This publication is based on the newly developed Problem Solving and Inquiry (PSI) tasks of TIMSS 2019. The report demonstrates the richness and innovativeness of the new item formats, while also highlighting the challenges, and learnings from their administration. The development of the PSI blocks was very labor-intensive and costly, but this report shows what can be learned when moving away from traditional item formats. Consequently, I strongly believe that this report will not only be useful for the further development of TIMSS but will also help other computer-based studies to learn how to improve their assessment.

The work presented in this publication represents the efforts of many individuals and groups. I would like to congratulate the authors of this report, Ina V.S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, Bethany Fishbein, Pierre Foy, and Sebastian Moncaleano from the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center for putting together this informative and valuable publication. I also would like to thank all researchers from the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center—especially the Executive Directors Ina V.S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, and Matthias von Davier, the IEA, Statistics Canada, Educational Testing Service and all the national centers for their vital work on TIMSS—which made this ambitious publication possible. Likewise, without the financial support from the participating countries, the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, and the European Commission, the study would not have been possible. Lastly, my deep gratitude goes to the 580,000 students, 52,000 teachers, 19,000 principals, and 310,000 parents who participated in TIMSS 2019—without them there would be no data—and IEA sincerely appreciates and values their willingness to be part of this research project.