Another round of global studies of education prowess. Another round of laments over the under performance of U.S. students.
Two reports released today — the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study — found that U.S. students perform better than the global average, but still lag behind many kids in East Asia and Europe.
There was one very bright spot: Fourth graders in this country are among the world’s top readers. (For a more upbeat spin on these results, check out Business Insider, which added all the scores and found the U.S. was 6th out the top 16 nations, surpassing, among others, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden.)
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study examine the performance of elementary and middle school students.
(For a sense of what these tests mean, the Center for Public Education has some great primers on its site.)
In 2011, more than 60 countries and other education systems participated in TIMSS. More than 20,000 students in more than 1,000 U.S. schools took the math and science assessment in spring 2011, along with 500,000 students from around the world. The reading study was also given in 2011, with 53 education systems participating at grade 4.
South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore dominated in math and science. The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science.
(If testing expert and debunker Gerald Bracey were alive, I would have received an e-mail from him by now warning me that these results are prone to gross mischaracterization, pointing that the United States used to fare far worse in the TIMSS. In the original TIMSS from 1995, published in 1996, U. S. 8th graders ranked 23rd in math among 41 nations. Ninth, he would note, is a giant step up, not down.)
American students are not attaining the math proficiency of other nations, an important yardstick given the importance of STEM careers to national economies. For example, 7 percent of math students scored at the advanced level in eighth-grade here compared to 48 percent in Singapore and 47 percent in South Korea.
(If testing expert and debunker Gerald Bracey were alive, I would have gotten an e-mail from him by now warning me that these results are prone to gross mischaracterization, pointing that the United States used to fare far worse. In the original TIMSS from 1995, published in 1996, U S 8th graders ranked 23rd in math among 41 nations.
The New York Times reported an interesting fact that affirms the value of pre-k: The test designers included questionnaires for parents about preparation before formal schooling. Ina V. S. Mullis, an executive director of the International Study Center, said that students whose parents reported singing or playing number games as well as reading aloud with their children early in life scored higher on their fourth-grade tests than those whose parents who did not report such activities. Similarly, students who had attended preschool performed better.
Fourth-graders have improved their scores in reading and math over the past four years, according to a study released Tuesday. But progress seems to fall off by eighth grade, where math and science scores are stagnant.
Meanwhile, kids in countries like Finland and Singapore are outperforming American fourth-graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind their Russian, Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts in math, and trail students from Hong Kong, Slovenia and South Korea in science.
Reading skills are a major strength for American students. Only a few points separate American students from the top-scoring students in the world. In Florida, which took part in the study separately, reading scores are second only to Hong Kong.
Asia continues to dominate the top echelon of scores across subject fields. The tiny city-state of Singapore takes first place in eighth-grade science and fourth-grade math, with South Korea scoring nearly as high. Singapore takes second place to South Korea in eighth-grade math, with Taiwan in third.
The results also lean toward Asian nations when it comes to advanced levels of learning. In Singapore, 4 in 10 eighth-graders achieved the “advanced benchmark” in science, which requires an understanding of complex and abstract concepts in physics, chemistry, biology and other sciences. About 2 in 10 make the grade in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In the U.S., it’s about 1 in 10.
Other findings released today:
— Some U.S. states that were measured separately were clear standouts, performing on par with or better than some top-performing Asian countries. Eighth-graders in Massachusetts and Minnesota score far better in math and science than the U.S. average. But in California and Alabama, eighth-graders fell short of the national average. (Georgia was not among the U.S. states measured separately; The states are California Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and North Carolina.)
— Racial and class disparities are all too real. In eighth grade, Americans in the schools with the highest poverty — those with 75 percent or more of students on free or reduced-price lunch — performed below both the U.S. average and the lower international average. Students at schools with fewer poor kids performed better. In fourth-grade reading, all ethnic groups outperformed the international average, but white and Asian students did better than their black and Hispanic classmates.
— Boys in the U.S. do better than girls in fourth-grade science and eighth-grade math. But girls rule when it comes to reading.
— On a global level, the gender gap appears to be closing. About half of the countries showed no statistically meaningful gap between boys and girls in math and science.
The tests are carried out by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition of research institutions. The U.S. portion of the exams is coordinated by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.