Study: Eighth-graders in more than half of U.S. states better than average in math and science

Eighth-graders in more than half the U.S. states did better than average on an international test in math and science, but the top students lagged behind South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, according to a study released by the federal government Thursday.

In math, public school students in 36 states scored higher than average. The lowest scoring state was Alabama and the highest was Massachusetts. U.S. students did better on the science test, with students in 47 states scoring higher than average. The District was the lowest scoring U.S. jurisdiction; Massachusetts was again the highest scorer.

Still, although Massachusetts led the nation, only 19 percent of eighth-graders from the Bay State scored high enough to be considered “advanced” in math, compared to nearly 50 percent of eighth-graders in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.

“It’s a good news, bad news scenario,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Department of Education. “All of our high performing states are being outperformed significantly by these other countries.”

The report gave new fuel to policymakers who have been arguing for 30 years that the United States has stalled in educational attainment and that K-12 schools need a reboot to produce adults who can compete in a global economy.

The analysis released Thursday used 2011 test scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMMS, an exam given by the United States and 46 other countries and provinces. Countries participating in TIMMS include developing economies such as Ghana and former Eastern bloc members Romania, Georgia and Kazakhstan. India and China, frequently cited as economic competitors to the United States, were not among the test takers.

Because only nine states participated in the TIMMS in 2011, researchers used data from a U.S. test taken by students in all states — the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress — and projected how students from each state and the District would have fared on the TIMMS. It is the first time the government has tried to link the tests.

Buckley said state officials want to compare their students to foreign counterparts.

“A lot of governors, state chiefs are interested in seeing better data about how their kids match up with the their cohort in the rest of the world,” Buckley said.

In math, students in Maryland and Virginia scored above the TIMMS average of 500 points, with Virginia averaging 523 points and Maryland 514 points. Students in the District averaged 481 points. The only U.S. states that scored lower than the District were Mississippi and Alabama.

In science, students in Virginia scored an average of 544, while Maryland students averaged 528, both well above the TIMMS average of 500. Students in the District averaged 453, the lowest U.S. score.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said Wednesday that although he is proud of the achievement of students in his state, it’s not enough.

“Not all our students are reaching these kinds of high levels of achievement that the aggregate represents,” Chester said.

Chester chairs one of two consortia of states that are writing standardized tests for the new Common Core academic standards, designed to improve math and reading instruction in 45 states and the District. Massachusetts raised its state academic standards in 1993 and now regularly leads the nation in test scores.

“For the nation, we’re evidence of what’s possible,” Chester said. “In many of our states, and as a nation, we should be doing better.”

Although he applauded some of the strong performers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the implications of the study were “troubling.”

“Given the importance of science in driving innovation and economic growth, it is troubling that more U.S. students are not scoring at advanced levels,” Duncan said in a statement. “The proportion of eighth-graders who are advanced in science in the U.S. is about the same as in Hungary, New Zealand and Turkey.”

But Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, said hand-wringing over international tests is misguided.

“What’s really peculiar about the whole test-score hysteria is that they use it as a proxy for the U.S. ‘competitiveness and innovation’ as though we don’t have actual measurements,” said Salzman, an expert in science and engineering labor markets and the globalization of innovation. “The country continues to lead on innovation, economic performance and all the results that these things are supposed to indicate.”

There are more than enough strong math and science students in U.S. classrooms to fill future jobs in this country, he said.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve education,” Salzman said. “But the fear that’s driving it is unfounded. The problem we have is not at the top or at the middle. It’s at the bottom. That’s what gets lost in averages and rankings.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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