For the first time, 40 states and the District of Columbia can see how their 8th graders stack up in math and science against students in 41 nations worldwide.
With state policymakers, business leaders, and others looking for ways to benchmark students’ academic progress in an international context, a research study released last week by the U.S. Department of Education is a “very powerful tool,” said Gary W. Phillips, an associate commissioner in the department’s National Center for Education Statistics.
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As states try to decipher how good is good enough for students’ performance in core subjects, it can be useful to look at how other countries, or economic competitors, do, state and federal officials said.
The report presents data on how the 40 states whose students took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1996 would have done had they participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which 41 countries took in 1995. Minnesota, Missouri, and Oregon students actually took the international exam.
For each of the states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Department of Defense schools, the report lists those countries that would have been expected to perform higher, not significantly different, and lower than that state or jurisdiction had it taken TIMSS. For example, it tries to answer the question of where Arizona falls in relation to Canada. The study also details what percentage of students in the state would have performed in the upper half of students and in the top 10 percent of students taking TIMSS.
Minnesota, with actual results, and Alaska virtually tied for the largest proportions of students falling into those categories for math performance in the 8th grade. In science, Minnesota’s actual results showed that about 20 percent of its students would have scored in the top 10 percent of takers of TIMSS--the largest proportion among the states.
No 4th Grade Link
To make the link between the two tests, statisticians used a mathematical formula to translate performance on one test into performance on the other--much the same way that the conversion is made between tem-peratures expressed in degrees Fahrenheit and degrees Celsius.
It helped greatly, officials said, to be able to check the link by looking at the actual results of Minnesota, which took TIMSS in 1995, and Missouri and Oregon, which took a special administration of the international exams last year.
The National Center for Education Statistics did not explicitly rank states by their international performance. “We don’t want to set up that horse race because we feel there’s too much error in the data,” Mr. Phillips said. But “we think this methodology is sufficiently robust to be able to do these comparisons” of how states would have done on TIMSS.
Mr. Phillips emphasized that the way the Education Department did the linking was just one way of doing it and that the extrapolation of NAEP to TIMSS scores represented a cutting-edge methodology.
At the same time, the statistics center has been unsuccessful in linking states’ performance on the 4th grade NAEP with the performance of 4th graders taking TIMSS. Researchers have yet to figure out why.
The ability to connect performance on a national exam such as NAEP to the international ones holds significance for the future success of the Clinton administration’s proposed voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. A major selling point of the national tests has been that individual students taking them would be able to know how they would have fared had they taken TIMSS. But the tests have powerful opponents in Congress and face a dubious future.
Oregon to Singapore
The international comparison provides a useful frame of reference for Oregon, said Stephen Slater, an assessment specialist for the state education department there. “Economically, Oregon is not just competing with Texas and Massachusetts and California,” he said. “We are competing globally, and so Singapore is just as valid a comparison group as the state of Washington.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1998 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Shows Relationship Between NAEP, TIMSS