Most states outpace average scores on international math and science exams


In 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics conducted the NAEP-TIMMS linking study, which gave states an opportunity to compare their math and science achievement levels to other countries across the world. They accomplished this task by linking 8th grade math and science scores from a prominent domestic exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), to scores from a widely used international exam, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study (TIMMS). Today, the U.S. Department of Education (DE) released the results, giving many states a reason to pat themselves on the back.

According to the report, 8th graders in 36 states outperformed the international average in math. 10 states had scores that were similar to international average, leaving only 6 states that fell behind. For 8th grade science, 47 states scored above the average, 2 scored the same and 3 were behind. Amid failing teacher PD programs, a steady economic and racial achievement gap, low graduation rates in large urban districts and an array of other domestic education issues, this news is worth acknowledging and exploring.

Analysis of the results shows that some states posted some of the world’s best scores. In math, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and New Jersey and New Hampshire scored higher than all but 5 of 47 countries. Science scores were similarly impressive; 9 of the 14 top scorers were U.S. states, with Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire finishing in 2nd, 4th and 5th place respectively.

While these performances are certainly worth celebrating, other data points from the study warrant serious concern. Of the 36 states that scored above the international average in math, most of them, according to an Edweek article, exhibited intermediate proficiency levels (There are 5 levels total: advanced, high, intermediate, low and below low). In other words, the average 8th grade students in most states is not at the advanced level that Japan, Singapore, Russia and other countries are. If U.S. students hope to compete in global environment, scoring above the average isn’t enough when other countries continue to achieve exemplary marks.

The data also show that many states contain vast disparities between high and low performers. Texas, for example, scored above the international average in math, but 30% of its 8th graders scored at the low proficiency level or worse. And as a country, the rates aren’t much better; 32% of U.S. 8th graders were “low” or “below low” and 69% were “intermediate” or below. To make matters worse, the aforementioned Edweek article states these figures haven’t changed much since 2007.

Moving forward, educators in most states should celebrate their ability to beat international averages while recognizing that above mediocre isn’t enough. Globalization requires more of our students to reach “high” and “advanced” levels on international exams.

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