Most States Surpass Global Average in Math, Science

By Catherine Gewertz — October 24, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story provided an incorrect figure for how many states surpassed the international average for 8th graders in math and science. The figure for math is 35 states; for science it is 46. The National Center for Education Statistics counted U.S. Department of Defense schools as a state.

A new analysis of how all U.S. states stack up against countries around the world shows that 8th grade students in 35 states outperformed the international average in math and those in 46 did so in science.

The federal report, released today, showcases the academic prowess of high-achieving states, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont, which outperformed all but five of 47 countries, provinces, and jurisdictions abroad in mathematics. The top performers in that subject were South Korea, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan).

At the same time, the study also highlights some states’ scholastic weaknesses. Alabama, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia, for instance, were the lowest-performing domestically in math. Countries such as Italy, Lithuania, and Hungary outperformed those U.S. systems in the subject.

The findings come from a National Center for Education Statistics study that uses the scores of states’ 8th graders on the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, to predict their performance on a test that most students didn’t take: the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. Only nine states participated in TIMSS as separate entities in 2011.

Such linking studies have been done before, but typically on tests given in different years because of their staggered schedules. Both NAEP and TIMSS happened to fall in 2011, however, so this study is the first to link tests given in the same year.

In science, the top seven performers globally included three U.S. states. The top scorer was Singapore, followed by Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan, and New Hampshire.

Most States ‘Intermediate’

Only 10 education systems abroad outscored the U.S. overall average in math or science.

The TIMSS scale is 0 to 1,000, with 500 the international average. Students must score 400 to reach the “low” category. At or above 475 is “intermediate,” and 550 or better is considered “high.” Students scoring 625 or above are considered “advanced.” No state or country’s average score reached the advanced category in math or science.

In math, nearly all U.S. states were clustered in the “intermediate” category of achievement, while internationally, more countries were at the low and intermediate levels.

Systems abroad, however, had more math averages in the “high” category than did those in the United States. Domestically, only one state, Massachusetts, scored at the “high” level in math. Of the 47 participating countries and jurisdictions, five scored at that level: South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. All five outperformed Massachusetts, and South Korea did so by the most, 52 points.

Only one U.S. state, Alabama, produced an average score in the “low” category in math, but it still scored higher than 19 countries or jurisdictions abroad. Internationally, 17 systems scored in that category, and six scored below the “low” cutoff score.

The United States fared better in science than in math. Eight states met or surpassed the cutoff for “high” performance: Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Five countries or jurisdictions did likewise: Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Finland.

As in math, far more countries scored in the low category than did U.S. states. Only one domestic jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, scored “low,” along with 19 systems abroad. No U.S. state fell below the “low” category, but six countries or jurisdictions abroad did, including Ghana and Morocco.

“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 in a statement. “We found that most 8th graders in the U.S. are competitive in math and science when their predicted performances were compared to their peers from around the globe.

“Still, our leading states are behind the highest-performing countries. Even Massachusetts, a top performer in math and science, struggles to compete with top-performing countries.”

‘Knowing Where We Stand’

Before the linking study was undertaken, TIMSS results showed only how the United States overall—and nine of its states that chose to participate as entities in TIMSS—compared with the math and science performance of 40-plus countries, provinces, and other jurisdictions. The linking process enabled a fuller report showing the projected performance of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Department of Defense schools.

The National Center for Education Statistics used statistical processes to map states’ NAEP scores onto the TIMSS scale, validating those projections by comparing the actual TIMSS scores of students in the nine states participating in that test with their predicted scores derived from the linking process. Another form of validation came from “braided” test booklets that were given to some students taking the NAEP or TIMSS: booklets that contained items from both tests.

The linking study focused only on 8th grade, even though TIMSS is given to 4th grade students as well.

Although the U.S. performance on TIMSS exceeded the international average on the 2011 exam, its achievement has been relatively flat since 2007, with the exception of 4th grade math, which has shown improvement.

Tom Loveless, a scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who tracks international math achievement, said the linking study “reinforces things we already knew,” especially the striking disparity in achievement among U.S. states.

“We have states that do very well and score among the top countries in the world. And we also have states that score very poorly, alongside countries like Romania and Armenia,” he said.

At the same time, the study allows American policymakers and educators to see how the range of their own states’ variation compares to that of countries around the world, he said.

“It allows us to place state variation in international context,” Mr. Loveless said. “For those people who think education is becoming more and more a global currency, knowing where we stand internationally is important.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as In Math, Science, Most States Surpass the Global Average


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