Pointing to Minn. Results, Officials Pitch National Test as Change Agent

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When Minnesota learned last week how its students compare with the rest of the world in math and science, the state's leaders started talking about what needs to change--from the state board room down to the classroom.

That's just the kind of discussion President Clinton hopes to spark with the national tests he is proposing in reading and math.

"A commitment to national standards is the best way we know to help local districts benchmark their own practices and to come up with ways that will help all the children achieve at a higher level," first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said here last week at a round table discussion with members of the news media.

"We've hit a plateau in the standards movement," Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy education secretary, added at the briefing intended to publicize Mr. Clinton's testing plan.

"States are not, in many cases, adopting really rigorous standards. ... These [national] tests are seen as a wake-up call, putting high-octane gasoline into the engine of the school reform movement," he said.

In Minnesota, school leaders and standards advocates received that jolt last week when a nonprofit organization that had paid to have students tested released the state's scores on a version of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, known as TIMSS.

The results showed that Minnesota's 8th graders ranked higher in science achievement than all but five of the 41 nations that took the test. In math, however, the state's achievement fell to the middle of the pack.

"What we have on the science side is incredible focus," said Bill Linder-Scholer, the executive director of SciMathMN, the nonprofit that paid $380,000 for the TIMSS testing of a sample group of 5,000 students in grades 3, 4, 7, 8, and 12. Results released last week were from the 2,000 8th graders who took the test.

"If we're really focused on what we're teaching, we really get system performance," he said.

Making Changes

But the state does not dedicate the same attention to math, Mr. Linder-Scholer said. Low-achieving students are often tracked out of higher-level courses such as algebra and geometry, he said, and teachers don't follow a standardized curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning and problem-solving.

And even though the state has adopted standards in math and a test students must pass to earn a diploma, the TIMSS results show that neither the standards nor the test are challenging enough to stand up to international competition, Mr. Linder-Scholer said.

SciMathMN--a coalition of government agencies, businesses, and school officials--is recommending that the state push all students to learn algebra and geometry by the 8th grade and that the graduation test include open-ended questions in those subjects rather than its current reliance on multiple-choice questions.

The group also says the state should ensure that teachers are prepared to teach to a higher standard.

These are the types of changes that Clinton administration officials expect all states to start making if they choose to participate in the program that is to begin in 1999. President Clinton has been pushing national standards and testing as part of his 10-point education plan. ("Political Shift Emboldens Clinton To Urge Tests," Feb. 19, 1997.)

Setting a Benchmark

The new tests would be offered to 4th graders in reading and 8th graders in math and would yield individual results--not just statewide averages, such as the ones Minnesota received from the TIMSS project last week.

"It is not an attempt to micromanage what goes on in the classrooms of America, but instead to set a national benchmark against which local districts can measure themselves," Mrs. Clinton said last week.

And because every student would receive scores on the tests, parents could use the results to demand improved services for their children.

"This will be the first time that parents, particularly in urban areas, will have honest, accurate information about how well their kids are doing," Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser, said at the briefing. "It ought to empower parents to call for and mobilize for education reforms in ways that have been more difficult for them to do now."

Last week, North Carolina signed up to participate, joining Maryland and Michigan in making commitments to the voluntary national tests, which have not yet been written. Another eight to 10 "have expressed a serious interest" in taking part, Mr. Cohen said.

Minnesota will have a head start when it comes to its students' science and math skills. The United States participated in the international testing effort, but only Minnesota, Colorado, and Illinois paid the consortium to test a sample size large enough to compare how their students achieve compared with children in other countries.

Minnesota's students achieved higher than the national average in both tests, much as they do on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and college-entrance exams. But by doing better in science than in math, they reflected the national results. ("U.S. Students About Average in Global Study, " Nov. 27, 1996.)

Twenty Illinois school districts also took the TIMSS test, and scored higher in science than in math. ("Clinton, Test Scores Put Ill. Consortium on the Map," Jan. 29, 1997.)

"It was important to get a snapshot of where Minnesota is in terms of the rest of the world," Mr. Linder-Scholer said. "In the past, there was no way to say how we were doing as a state, except in very rough form."

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