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December 12, 2016

U.S. Students have Strong Showing on International Math Assessment

We recently released an analysis of PISA scores, which showed disparities in achievement across student groups and mostly stagnant scores.  However, the U.S. had a better showing on another international benchmark, the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).  TIMSS is different from PISA in that it assesses more classroom-based content, whereas PISA is more of an assessment of how students can apply skills learned in the classroom to real-world problems.  TIMSS assesses 4th and 8th graders, while PISA assesses 15 year olds, regardless of grade.

In 2015, TIMSS assessed 49 countries in 4th grade math, 47 countries in 4th grade science, and 39 countries in 8th grade math and science.

Students were assessed in math and science, but today we’ll just take a look at the math scores.

4th Grade Math

U.S. 4th graders scored 14th out of 49 countries, with performance that was statistically lower than only 10 countries and similar to eight countries, including Finland.  They also scored 10th highest in the number of students who scored at the advanced level (levels are low, intermediate, high, and advanced).  The percentage of students reaching high or advanced levels have increased steadily since the test was first administered in 1995.  Students showed greater strength in numerical functions, but had deficits in geometric shapes and measures.  They also scored higher in knowledge-based questions than items based on the application of knowledge to a problem and reasoning.TIMMS4th

8th Grade Math

U.S. 8th graders were 10th out of 39 countries, with seven countries having statistically higher scores and nine countries having similar scores.  Eighth graders also had the 10th highest number of students who scored at the advanced level, which has been steadily increasing since 1995.  Students were significantly stronger in Algebra than they were in 2007 or 2011.  Similar to 4th graders, 8th grade students were stronger at knowledge-based questions than application or reasoning questions, despite showing improvement in all three categories since 2007.


Demographic Factors

Schools with fewer students from affluent families and more students from disadvantaged families performed at lower levels than more affluent schools, showing that the U.S. still has much work to do to achieve academic equity.  Note that demographic data is reported by principals.


Schools with more native English speakers perform better than schools with greater numbers of students learning English in both 4th and 8th grades.  Schools with teacher-reported lack of resources and problems with school conditions also fared worse.  Students who felt that they fit in, or belonged, at school had higher achievement.

Other Contributing Factors

The U.S. is in the bottom half of countries on measures of teacher satisfaction.  Higher levels of teacher satisfaction in their schools is mildly correlated with higher student performance.  Teachers who reported having greater challenges, such as large classes or administrative tasks, actually had higher student achievement than those who reported few challenges.

International Data

Gender gaps still tend to favor boys across the globe, though in some countries girls outperform boys.  Interestingly, 8th grade girls in 21 countries outperformed boys in Algebra, though boys outperformed girls in number-based problems in 17 countries.

TIMMS1Source: http://timss2015.org/timss-2015/mathematics/achievement-in-content-and-cognitive-domains/

As debate continues about early childhood education in the U.S., the data from other countries is quite convincing that students who have formal education before entering the K-12 system outperform those who do not.  This data does not include the U.S.


Source: http://timss2015.org/timss-2015/mathematics/home-environment-support/

We still have work to do, but TIMSS shows us that improvement has been slow and steady for U.S. students.

Filed under: Assessments,CPE,International Comparisons,TIMSS — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 4:07 pm

July 11, 2016

STEM has become the Beyoncè of the curriculum

STEM is steadily earning a place as the dazzling star in the high school curriculum and for good reason. The benefit of high-level science and math courses to later success in college, jobs, and even to healthy living is well-established (see, for example, here and here). But while the importance of STEM is unquestioned, we do risk allowing it to outshine other disciplines that may lack the same predictive value, but in their own unique ways contribute as much to preparing students for productive and fulfilling adulthood.

QueenBeyHow does Beyoncè fit into this? Right now, the Queen Bey touch predicts success like nothing else in popular culture. She drops a surprise album. Billboard gold. An hour-long music video? Three months later, critics still gush about it. She has the president on speed dial. Sure, we will sometimes weep with Adele, get uptown funky, or tell someone to shut up and dance with us. But the spotlight will inevitably draw our eyes back to Beyoncè.

STEM seems to have that same power in education policy discussions, often leaving the humanities and the arts as afterthoughts. This is not to suggest that course-taking in these other subjects are declining. Actually, high school seniors are earning more credits in all subjects. But we also don’t talk about English, history and the arts as much as we do STEM when we call for improving the curriculum.

Why do STEM courses get all the attention? I can think of a couple of reasons. The first is one, we at CPE, probably encourage, albeit not intentionally. Fact is, the evidence in support of high-level science and math is much stronger than it is for courses in other subjects. We therefore point more often to STEM subjects when writing about what works. Everything else gets short shrift by default.

A second possible reason is that the needs of the workforce often drive the conversation about the content of education we provide students. Technical jobs are leading the pack among fastest growing occupations, so we want to make sure our young people are prepared for them.

But the thing is, the research doesn’t necessarily say that STEM courses have more benefits than the humanities. What we do know is that it is easier for analysts to draw a line between science and math curriculum to college and career outcomes, particularly when the analysis is based on course titles. We can infer that a course named Algebra II, for example, is higher level than one called Business Math. But we typically don’t have a similar proxy to distinguish one English 4 course from another.

However, we can look to postsecondary education for some fairly strong hints about the importance of a well-rounded curriculum – one that emphasizes the humanities and arts as much as STEM. After all, exposure to a range of subject matter is an essential ingredient in the development of literacy skills, critical thinking and the ability to solve problems.  Entering college freshmen who lack these abilities are at a serious disadvantage. Barely one-third of freshmen who require remedial reading courses can expect to eventually earn a two- or four-year degree compared to 45 percent of students requiring remedial math and 56 percent who do not take any remedial courses at all.

Those who make it through continue to be served well by a broad-based general education along with their major. A session at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival specifically addressed business majors’ need for the liberal arts. One of the panelists cited a 2014 study from the Collegiate Learning Assessment – a national college assessment of critical thinking and writing – that found “business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences and engineering” as seniors, even after controlling for students’ abilities’ levels when entering college. Rachel Reiser in the business school at Boston University went on to say that the skills businesses want include attributes developed through the liberal arts — “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making.”

The evidence for the humanities and arts may not be as compelling as it is for STEM in high school, but I think it’s enough to make the case for giving them a prominent place in the curriculum. And let’s not forget that college and career readiness is just one part of public schools’ mission. We also want graduates to be prepared to be good citizens and enjoy satisfying lives. Beyoncè will still command our attention. But let’s leave room for some others, too, who we can love just as much.

April 28, 2016

12th graders’ math scores drop, reading flatlines

And just when we had allowed ourselves to get giddy over record-shattering high school graduation rates.

NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report card, released the results of its 2015 assessment of high school seniors’ math and reading proficiency. Like their 4th and 8th grade schoolmates, whose 2015 scores were published last fall, the nation’s 12th-graders either made no progress or dropped a few points, especially in mathematics. Worse, scores for the lowest performers fell the most in both subjects.

Let’s start with reading. The overall score was 1 point lower on the NAEP scale from two years ago, which is not a statistically significant change. However, 12th graders are performing 5 points lower compared to their peers in 1992, the first year the main-NAEP reading assessment was administered.

There was no noticeable change since 2013 in the scores of any racial/ethnic group, or in the achievement gaps between them.

Indeed, the biggest change was at the bottom. In just the last two years, the proportion of students who did not even read at the basic level grew, from 25 to 28 percent.  What this means in more tangible terms is that this group of soon-to-be-graduates cannot recognize the main purpose of expository text; cannot recognize the main purpose of an argument; and cannot explain a character’s action from a story description.

The math picture isn’t any rosier. The overall math score fell a significant 3 points on the NAEP scale. While this is still 2 points higher than in 2005 – the first administration of the test’s new math framework – it does represent a reversal after years of steady gains. As with reading, the math scores were relatively flat for every racial/ethnic group compared to 2013. One happy exception: scores for English language learners rose by 4 points.

Math also saw an increase of the wrong kind. A whopping 38 percent of high school seniors did not perform at the basic level in 2015, an increase of 3 points over 2013. This is troubling on its own merits. It is truly baffling when considering that 90 percent of seniors reported having taken Algebra II or a higher math course in high school.  We should see this group of low performers shrinking, not growing larger.

Of high interest to education policymakers and parents is the degree to which 12th graders are prepared for college work. Beginning in 2008, the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, commissioned several studies linking NAEP performance levels to college readiness. Based on the analysis, just slightly more than a third of seniors in 2015 scored at a level showing they had the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in freshmen courses. But ready or not, two-thirds of them will be bound for two- and four-year colleges the October following graduation.

Why is this happening? Many advocates have been quick to point to policies like Common Core, too much testing, not enough testing, or whatever other bee sticks in their bonnets. But as I have written elsewhere, there is not enough information at this point to lay the blame on any one of these, although they surely warrant watching. Likewise, some observers have noted the increase in childhood poverty, which also deserves attention.

I think another explanation might be found in one of our great successes. High school graduation rates have exploded in just the last 10 years. In 2013, 81 percent of all high school students graduated within four years. We know from research that failing grades are high risk factors for students. Up until recently, these low performers would have dropped out before showing up in the NAEP data as seniors. The fact that they are still in school is a good thing, but it may also be dragging 12th grade scores down.

The truth is, it’s too soon for us to know for sure why this happened. But there are enough questions that schools should be examining to get us back on the right track.

  • Do the high-level courses students are taking in larger numbers actually represent high-level content?
  • Do schools have enough counselors and other trained professionals to not just make sure students stay in school, but have the support they need to perform academically?
  • Are teachers also supported as they implement higher standards in their classrooms?
  • Finally, are federal, state and local policymakers providing the resources high schools need to assure every student graduates ready to succeed in college, careers and life?
Filed under: Assessments,CPE,High school,NAEP,Reading,Testing — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 10:52 am

March 17, 2015

Math skills needed to climb the economic ladder

economic ladder

With all the headlines about students opting-out of testing it appears there is an assumption that test scores have no connection to a student’s future success. There is certainly room to debate how much testing students should be taking and what role test results should play in student, teacher, and school accountability but it can’t be ignored that the test scores do in fact matter. No, test results are not a perfect measure of a student’s actual knowledge and skills but perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. That is, test scores are a good measure of a student’s knowledge and skills and the new Common Core tests appear to be an even more accurate measure than previous state assessments that at best were good measures of basic skills.

But does it really matter how students perform on a test? Yes, especially for students from the most economically disadvantaged families. If they want to climb up the economic ladder they better perform well on their math tests. When I examined the impact of the math scores of 2004 seniors who took part in the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS) I found that those students who came from families at the bottom quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to move up the economic ladder, the better they performed on the ELS math assessment. For example, just 5 percent of low-SES students who scored within the lowest quartile on the math assessment moved up to the highest quartile in SES by 2012. On the other hand, 36 percent of low-SES students who had scored within the top quartile on the math assessment climbed to the top of the SES ladder by 2012. Moreover, nearly half of low-SES students remained in the lowest SES quartile in 2012 if they also scored among the lowest quartile on the math assessment. Yet, only 11 percent of low-SES students who scored among the top quartile on the math assessment remained low-SES in 2012.

Taken together this provides strong evidence that economically disadvantaged students can improve their chances of moving up the economic ladder by performing well on math tests. On the other hand, low-performance on math tests will likely lead to continued economic challenges in their adult lives.

Of course, it is not simply improving test scores that enable economically disadvantaged students to move up the economic ladder, it is the skills the higher test scores represent. As CPE’s reports on getting into and succeeding in college showed, obtaining higher math skills leads to greater success in college. Furthermore, an upcoming CPE report will also show that higher math skills also increases the chances non-college enrollees will get a good job and contribute to society as well. So there is strong evidence that increasing a student’s math knowledge, as measured by standardized tests, gives economically disadvantaged students the tools they need to climb up the economic ladder. –Jim Hull

Filed under: Assessments,Testing — Tags: , — Jim Hull @ 11:32 am

August 7, 2014

Math wars redux

A distinguished Berkeley mathematician took to the Wall Street Journal’s pages this week to criticize the Common Core math standards for being “several years behind” the old California standards, which she called “among the nation’s best.” Given the author and its substance, the op-ed is going viral through the anti-Common Core blogosphere, adding more proof that the nation’s math wars may yet rival the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for longevity.

(The op-ed is behind the WSJ paywall. However, non-subscribers can find this summary of it at Breitbart.com.)

The author, Marina Ratner, a professor emerita of mathematics at UC-Berkeley, devotes most of her column to describing ways Common Core math are lower than those that preceded them. She bluntly concludes that “adoption of the Common Core standards represents a huge step backward … [and] will move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.”

While I respect Dr. Ratner’s professional expertise, her criticisms should be viewed in the proper context. As EDifier readers know, CPE has no political or organizational stake in the Common Core standards. But we do believe two things: that there is a legitimate public conversation to be had at the state level about whether to participate in national standards; and that this conversation should be based on good information about the Common Core.

That said, I like the Common Core math standards overall even though I have some quibbles. For example, I think the K-3 standards may be a little too much, too soon. But here’s what I like about them:

For one, the Common Core defines fewer math concepts in more depth. One of the biggest problems of mathematics in the U.S. compared to other high-achieving nations is that our math curriculum tends to be, what researcher William Schmidt called, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The Common Core is the latest attempt to change that, hence the fewer, deeper thing. Typically, U.S. students spend the first three to six weeks at the beginning of each school year re-learning mathematics they were taught earlier, but forgot. That’s a ridiculous waste of time and resources. What’s worse, it hasn’t helped our students learn mathematics any better.

Dr. Ratner held special contempt for her sixth-grade grandson’s math work that called for the visualization of fractions, writing “simple concepts are made artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeper—while the actual content taught was primitive.” But in fact, all of the modeling is designed to help students learn the concepts, basic concepts included, well enough the first time so they don’t have to repeat the same lessons over and over again.

I also like that the Common Core puts more emphasis on mathematical practices and data, probability and statistics (DPS) than we usually see in state standards. Dr. Ratner echoes criticisms from a handful of university mathematicians who privilege algebra/calculus-based mathematics over all other math domains, even though DPS is the dominant math of other disciplines, work and citizenship. From my point of view, the new emphasis on DPS and mathematical practices is the biggest strength of the Common Core. It should also be noted that graduates meeting the Common Core will, at minimum, have mastered what my math friends call “substantial Algebra II” and nothing precludes students from taking more math. Neither eighth-grade algebra nor high school calculus is going away.

As a Californian, Dr. Ratner was most distressed by her belief that the Common Core are lower standards than the state had before. She claims, in part, this is because California’s previous standards defined expectations for higher math courses, including pre-calculus and calculus. While this is true, this argument is missing some very important context. That is, the advanced math standards applied only to students who took those courses — not to all California students. In truth, California’s existing high school graduation requirements call for only two years of high school math and do not include Algebra II. A high school diploma in the state, therefore, does not mean the graduate has had exposure to higher math.

Finally, Dr. Ratner goes on to repeat a statement from one of the Common Core architects, Jason Zimba, that has been circulated among anti-Common Core activists as proof the standards are lower. As Dr. Ratner tells it, Dr. Zimba admitted in testimony that “the new standards wouldn’t prepare students for colleges to which ‘most parents aspire’ to send their children.”

Dr. Zimba, of course, is exactly right. The Common Core are intended to prepare all graduates to enter a two- or four-year college without the need for remediation. Many (not sure “most”) parents aspire to more selective colleges that will be looking for more on the high school transcript, especially for students wanting to enter STEM fields. Those parents will continue to make sure their child gets pre-calculus and calculus just as they did before the Common Core, and schools will continue to provide those courses. But for the vast majority of students, the new math standards will be a big step up.

In related news, Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia provides a look back at earlier attempts to change math pedagogy so that students would learn concepts with deeper understanding. Beginning with the often-maligned New Math in the 1960s through the NCTM standards and now the Common Core, Willingham shows that the expectations were right, but that past efforts failed because of inadequate time and attention to helping teachers change their instruction. Whether we can muster the commitment this time to do it right remains to be seen. But if we don’t, we can expect the math wars to continue and the casualties we amass will be our students. — Patte Barth


Filed under: Common Core,Course taking,High school — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 4:44 pm

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