Better News in New Study That Assesses U.S. Students By MOTOKO RICH

The New York Times

October 23, 2013

Better News in New Study That Assesses U.S. Students

Amid growing alarm over the slipping international competitiveness of American students, a report comparing math and science test scores of eighth graders in individual states to those in other countries has found that a majority outperformed the international average.

But the report, to be released Thursday by the National Center for Education Statistics, an office of the Education Department, showed that even in the country’s top-performing states — which include Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

study this month found that American adults lag behind their peers in most other developed countries in math, technology and literacy. Business groups and advocates for market-based changes in public education regularly point to such international comparisons when calling for higher standards to prepare American students for the global work force.

The latest study found that students in 36 states outperformed the international average on math exams given through the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which was administered in 2011 to students in 38 countries and 9 educational systems, like those in states or provinces.

The tests are administered to a random selection of demographically representative students, and in 2011, nine states also participated in the tests. The National Center for Education Statistics then compared the performance of the remaining states, the District of Columbia and Defense Department schools on the Nation’s Report Card exams, adjusting for differences in the exams.

In science, the study found that public school students in 47 states achieved average scores that were higher than the international average.

“There is certainly some support here for the ‘we’re doing quite well’ position,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “But when you do look at those comparisons of the very high percentages of kids at the very highest levels of performance, that’s where we do see those gaps that are actually very stark.”

In math, for example, 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level on the exams, compared with close to 50 percent in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

In science, students in the top-performing states fared somewhat better: 24 percent of students in Massachusetts achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore. In Mississippi, 3 percent of students reached the advanced benchmark.

Mr. Buckley said that some of the differences could be attributed to demographics. The United States has a far more diverse population in its public schools than many of the top-performing countries, with a high — and growing — number of students for whom English is a second language.

But differences in curriculum and teaching quality most likely affected performance as well, Mr. Buckley said.

In Massachusetts, Mitchell Chester, the education commissioner, said the state had raised its math and science standards over the past decade. He said that since 2009, new elementary and special education teachers in the state had also been required to pass a math proficiency test to be licensed.

A growing chorus of critics have said that claims of deteriorating American student performance have been exaggerated. In her recent best seller, “Reign of Error,” the education historian Diane Ravitch wrote, “Contrary to the loud complaints from the reform chorus, American students are doing quite well in comparison to those of other advanced nations.”

But others say the international comparisons are apt. Paul E. Peterson, the director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard and a fellow at the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, said the study provided less good news than people might think.

He pointed out that the pool of countries taking the math and science exams included many developing countries, and that several industrialized nations, including France, Germany and Denmark, did not participate. “So if you really want to compare the U.S. to the developing world, then we do look good,” Mr. Peterson said.

The comparisons in the study also do not include test results from developing countries that have become economic competitors: India and China.

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