Commentary Magazine


Helping America’s Students

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, is administered every four years and compares the mathematics and science knowledge and skills of American fourth- and eighth-graders to the performance of their peers in other countries (in 2007, thirty-six countries or educational jurisdictions participated at grade four, while 48 participated at grade eight).

The results included some encouraging news, some not-so-great news, and some troubling news.

The good news first: American fourth and eighth grade students made solid achievement gains in math in recent years (since 1995, for example, the average score among fourth-graders has jumped 11 points, to 529.) And two states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, showed stunning progress. In eighth grade science, for example, Massachusetts students, on average, scored higher than or equal to students in all countries but Singapore and Taiwan. And in Minnesota, which has worked to improve its math curriculum, the proportion of fourth-grade students performing at the advanced level jumped from 9 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2007, a near-record nine-point gain. The reason for the math gains are due to the renewed (federal) focus on math education in recent years. No Child Left Behind deserves credit for requiring schools to administer annual math tests and demanding higher standards and achievement. The above data reflect the fruits of these efforts.

The not-so-great news: U.S. students are doing no better on an international science exam than they were in the mid-1990s. Students in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong outperformed U.S. fourth-graders in science. In fact, as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute points out, American students actually lost ground in fourth grade science, seeing their scores slip three points over the past decade while seven countries (including Singapore, Hong Kong, and England) made double-digit gains. The U.S. fourth-grade students tested in science had an average score of 539 on a 1,000-point scale, higher than their peers in 25 countries.

In eighth grade, Singapore topped the list, with an average score of 567. Students in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, England, Hungary and Russia were among those earning higher marks than their U.S. counterparts. The average score in the United States was 520.

The most troubling news: on average, the aggregate results showed several Asian countries increasing their dominance over America. That is particularly problematic in an increasingly global economy.
“It was good to see that the United States has made some progress in math, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the gap between us and the highest performing Asian countries, and that should cause us some concern,” Ina V. S. Mullis, co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College, which directs the tests, told the New York Times. “It’s an extraordinary tribute to their school systems that those countries have nearly half of all students performing at the advanced level.”

The obvious lesson to draw from all this is that we need to build on our gains in math education and bolster science education. How we do this isn’t a mystery; according to a Washington Post story:

The benefits of tough standards and a focus on foundational skills were reflected in test score gains in Minnesota, according to William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who worked with Minnesota education officials. In 1995, before the state implemented math standards based on international benchmarks, Minnesota fourth-graders trailed peers across the country. But in the 2007 TIMSS testing, Minnesota outpaced the nation and trailed only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. “It says, ‘America you can do it, and the way to do it is to have coherent, focused and rigorous standards,’ ” Schmidt said.

It’s been said that you can prove the possible by the actual. We have examples of what works in the states, as well as lessons we can draw on from other nations. It will require high standards, accountability, competition (private and public school choice), and increasing the number (and pay) of well-prepared teachers, among other things.

Petrilli puts it this way:

The lesson is that what gets tested gets taught. Under the No Child Left Behind act, and state accountability systems before that, elementary schools have been held accountable for boosting performance in math and reading. There is evidence that American elementary schools are spending less time teaching science, and this is showing up in the international testing data.

Progress will also require a lessening of the power and influence of the teachers’ unions, and especially the National Education Association, which continues to be the largest obstacle to comprehensive reform. One of the tests of President-elect Obama is whether he will side with education reformers or the guardians of the status quo.

As is so often the case in life, we know what is required of us; it is simply a matter of whether we can summon the will to excellence.

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