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Massachusetts aces international math and science tests

Posted by Jim Stergios  December 13, 2012 02:29 PM

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With the announcement of the Trends in Math and Science Study results this week, there are all kinds of statements being made about who made out well and what it means. They range from the wildly overstated claims of the Foundation for Excellence in Education that Florida’s mediocre performance on the TIMSS signified that the Sunshine State is a “national example,” “world leader,”and “busting all the myths” to accurate praise for Massachusetts for showing continued progress into the upper tier of countries in the world in math and science.

Here are the four takeaways from the tests

The TIMSS test matters. Massachusetts should be extremely pleased to have done well on the TIMSS test, for it is in many ways a tougher test than the PISA tests. Dougal Hutchison and Ian Schagen analyzed the TIMSS and PISA tests for the National Foundation for Educational Research citing the work of Graham Ruddock, who looked closely at the tests in a British context, noting:

It is the quantity of reading that marks PISA out, not the complexity of the language, which is similarly unfamiliar in both the international studies. The high reading demand of questions in PISA is often accompanied by a relatively lower demand in the mathematics or science required. This reflects the lower level of mathematics or science that students can apply in new contexts as opposed to very familiar ones. (Ruddock et al., 2006, p.123).

The TIMSS is a more objective test based on multiple choice answers, with far more numeracy and algebra on the test items (PISA has more data manipulation), and more focus on knowledge acquired.

The United States is still doing poorly, but Massachusetts stands out among an increasing number of states that are participating as countries. On 4th-grade math, the US is fully 60 points behind Singapore, 40-plus behind Japan and 20 behind Great Britain. The States’ 11th place showing is no reason for celebration. As the NCES press release notes, 4th graders are improving over time with the average US score going up 23 points since 1995 (12 points in just the last four years). The US did moderately well on the percentage of 4th graders scoring advanced, coming in around 8th of the 57 countries sand other systems tested.

On 4th-grade science, the happy news is that US 4th-graders are performing at a higher level (now 7th of the 57 systems against which it was compared); the bad news… there is virtually no change in the US 4th-grade score since 1995! The US is over 40 points behind Korea and Singapore.

Worried? Let’s focus on 8th-grade performance, which tells more about sustained ability to move students forward (and also for reasons of keeping our dear reader’s interest). By the 8th grade US students fall to just slightly above average (509 versus the TIMSS average score of 500). Worse, there is virtually no change in 8th-grade US student performance on this test since 2007.

Average math scores, 8th grade (57 countries and education systems)
Korea, Republic of 613
Singapore 611
Chinese Taipei 609
Hong Kong 586
Japan 570
Massachusetts 561
Russia 539
Connecticut 518
Florida 513
US average 509
TIMSS scale ave. 500

Looking at some of the states that participated in TIMSS, we can see that a Globe front page headline this week was justified in noting that Massachusetts pupils buck the national trend. On both 4th-grade but more importantly on 8th-grade math, Massachusetts (if it were a country) scores with international leaders. We have a long way to go to get to the level of South Korea, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, but we blow the doors off of other states and the U.S. “World leader” Florida scores right about where the U.S. does. Hmm.

Turning to science, again, the US 8th graders muster a mediocre average score of 525 (versus the overall international average of 500). While the U.S. has made progress since 1995, that can’t be said of the period since 2007. What of state participants like Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut? Again, Massachusetts performs very well, behind only Singapore. We need to up our game significantly to reach Singapore, but we are far ahead of the US average and clean the clocks of neighbors like Connecticut and also “national leader” Florida.

Average science scores, 8th grade (56 countries and education systems)
Singapore 590
Massachusetts 567
Chinese Taipei 564
Korea, Republic of 560
Japan 558
Finland 552
Slovenia 543
Connecticut 532
Florida 530
US average 525
TIMSS scale ave. 500

States lead the way on reform. Arne Duncan noted in his press release associated with TIMSS that states can play a role in improving schools. Well, given what Massachusetts has accomplished these past two decades and the little impact of federal policy, perhaps a better way of putting it is: States and localities are the only entities capable of improving student performance. States and localities bring 90 percent of the revenue pie, and states and localities are flexible and innovative enough to craft policies that matter.

The question for Massachusetts is why, if it is showing this kind of progress, it would want to tether itself to national and federal efforts like the Common Core standards, tests, and curricular materials. Why the best state in the US would resign itself to being like all the rest of the states is truly a difficult policy decision to explain.

Massachusetts still has a way to go. The students participating in the TIMSS are a representative sample of students from around the state. We know we have a long way to go to get Boston, Cambridge, New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield and other urban school districts up to the bar. But the TIMSS data is clear in showing the weaknesses we have vis-a-vis the highest-performing countries. Singapore has double the percentage of students in the "advanced" scoring range in math and science.

So the title of this post is overstating where we are. We deserve a B or B+ on TIMSS, with a recommendation to redouble our efforts to address unique issues. Specifically, the test confirms that we need to make our standards and curricular choices even more rigorous and that we have work to do to improve the quality of our teacher core.

If we make the right choices, having the best schools in the world is within reach. Lowering the bar by adopting Common Core is no more helpful than it would be for a teacher to tell a student who is performing well and improving fast to join a study group with underachievers. For us that means the rest of the United States, which earns no more than a C- on TIMSS.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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