Guest Column: Student test results are surprising

How about a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza compliment for Minnesota’s eighth grade students’ knowledge of 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, Finland has been cited as a model, based on international tests results released several years ago. Finland was first in the world, without using any state or national testing.
Finland didn’t score first on any of the four just released 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 eighth grade students did considerably better than Finnish counterparts in math, and slightly better in science. Minnesota eighth graders rank in the top 10 among the 63 countries and 14 “other entities” that participated. (Not enough Minnesota fourth graders were tested separately to show how they compared to others). Massachusetts eighth graders also ranked ahead of their counterparts in Finland and Minnesota.
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 514 in 2011.
In science, eighth grade Minnesota students ranked sixth, one point ahead of Finland.
The report was administered by TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), based in Boston. 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. Each had a “representative sample” of students in the study. The research began in 1995. The latest results come from tests taken in 2011.
The top performers were in almost every case, Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, all countries or regions 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.” Among the participating nations, 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 the “other entities”).
What’s happened in Minnesota over the last decade that can help explain these results? First, give credit to teachers, students and the Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Business Partnership, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota High Tech Council, Minnesota Office of Higher Education and a group called “SciMath Minnesota.”
As former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren recalled this week, “These groups worked together to host teacher workshops all over Minnesota. Several of these groups also did career workshops for students and/or created materials to help promote the value of math and science. Many teachers told us these were the most valuable workshops they had attended in years.”
Part of Minnesota’s economy depends on companies that need people well trained in these areas.  As we make 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 establish 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 also should be a priority.
Thirty-three year Minnesota Educator Mike Lindstrom, formerly with the Anoka-Hennepin district and formerly director of SciMath Minnesota thinks new, higher state standards helped. He agreed with Seagren’s wise conclusion: “Give educators and key partners credit for what has been accomplished.  But recognize there’s much more that can and should be done.”

Joe Nathan received awards from parent, professional and student groups for his work as a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator.  He directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome: joe@centerforschoolchange.org

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