Until recently, the performance of US 8th grade students in science and math had been almost universally judged negatively. Compared to their international counterparts, their abilities in these subjects was lackluster and under sharp scrutiny, driving criticism of broader failures in US schools. However, recent analysis of the data suggests otherwise.
Compared to their foreign counterparts, US eighth graders attending public schools in 47 states are actually above average in science according to new analysis, and are above the international average in math in 36 states.
The study was conducted by the federal National Center for Education Statistics using scores from American 8th graders who took the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 2011 to predict what their performance would be on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a highly respected gauge of academic ability. Actual TIMSS scores of students in nine U.S. states were used by the researchers to test their predictions.
According to Adrienne Lu of Pew's Stateline, although most U.S. states were above average, the study showed wide disparities among them. And even the U.S. state with the highest scores, Massachusetts, produces far fewer top-performing students than the top-ranked education systems worldwide. Nineteen percent of 8th graders in Massachusetts were rated "advanced" in math compared to about half the students in Taiwan, Korea and Singapore.
"We conducted this study because it's important to know how students educated in U.S. states are performing against international standards," said NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley.
The average state scores in math ranged from 466 in Alabama to 561 in Massachusetts. 509 was the average score in the U.S. Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan — all of which outperformed Massachusetts. The proportion of students scoring high or advanced ranged from 29% in Arkansas to 57 % in Massachusetts among the 36 states with average scores of at least 500 in math.
The average state scores in science ranged from 453 for the District of Columbia to 567 in Massachusetts. The average score in the United States was 525. The only education system with a higher science average than Massachusetts was Singapore. The percentage of students scoring high or advanced ranged from 31 % in Hawaii to 61 % in Massachusetts among the 47 states with average scores of at least 500 in science.
The executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Maria Ferguson, said that while interpretations of the data will vary.
"Massachusetts is clearly doing a couple of things right, even if you're not one of the people who believes test scores dictate everything," she said.
Additionally, according to her, policymakers should explore why Massachusetts might be performing at such a high level, citing the quality of the state's teachers and its education spending as possible factors in its success.
Students from more than 60 countries and subsections of countries participated in TIMSS in the year 2011.