Surprising, encouraging Minnesota results on international math/science tests

How about a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza compliment for Minnesota’s students in fourth and eighth grade math and science? Recently released results of an international study in those fields had encouraging news for Minnesota, and a surprise. Here’s a summary, followed by what the results may mean.

Let’s begin with the surprise. Over the last few years, there has been intense interest in Finland, based on international tests results released several years ago. Finland was first in the world, without any state or national testing, along with other policies.

Finland didn’t score first on any of the four mathematics and science tests. It was in the top 10, but in the top five on only one of the assessments.

And – here’s the compliment: Minnesota’s students did better than Finnish students on two of the tests, and tied with them on one and were slightly lower on one. On each test, Minnesota students rank in the top 10 among the 63 countries and 14 “other entities” that participated.

The report was done by TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), based in Boston. It’s available at http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/timss2011.Along with the 63 countries, the “other entities” including among others, are the states of Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Canadian provinces. They had a “representative sample” of students in the study. The research began in 1995. The latest results come from tests taken in 2011.

In math and science, the top performers were in almost every case, Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, all countries with strong assessment programs.. As the report noted in describing math results “At the eighth grade, clearly the East Asian countries, particularly Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea, are pulling away from the rest of the world by a considerable margin.”

In math, eighth grade Minnesota students were seventh (after several Asian countries and Massachusetts). Finland ranked 10th, including both countries and the states. Minnesota eighth grade students improved from a score of 518 in 1995 to 545 in 2011. Finnish eighth graders dropped from 520 in 1995, to 482 in 2011. Minnesota and Finnish fourth graders tied for ninth, again including both countries and states.

In science, eighth grade Minnesota students ranked sixth, one point ahead of Finland. Fourth graders in Minnesota ranked sixth, while Finnish fourth graders ranked third.

The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, ninth in eighth-grade math, seventh in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science (not including Massachusetts and Minnesota).

What’s happened in Minnesota over the last decade that can help explain these results? First, give the state government and the private sector credit for encouraging considerable attention to math and science. Second, this concern has been backed up by financial support to help train and retrain Minnesota math and science teachers.

Part of Minnesota’s economy depends on companies that need people well trained in these areas. As we made political decisions about the environment, it helps to have more people who understand scientific principles.

The new reports also cite the value of strong early childhood education, and family involvement. Around the world students who had both scored higher than those who didn’t.

As legislators consider priorities in 2013, I hope they consider this report. Among other things, we should modify testing, but not eliminate it. Expanding high quality early childhood programs should be a priority.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Macalester College. Reactions are  welcome  via e-mail  at jnathan@macalester.edu.

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