Standards Help Minn. Vie With Top Nations

By Sean Cavanagh — January 21, 2009 7 min read
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Thirteen years ago, Minnesota was a state with no academic standards in mathematics and science and what some observers said was a mixed record in grounding students in crucial academic content, such as number skills and algebra.

Since then, the state has set clear guidelines for schools in both subjects, and it also appears to have tuned up what gets taught in math classes. To state officials, the benefits are clear.

As one of only two U.S. states to participate in a prominent international measurement of academic skill, Minnesota is scoring at or near the level of many of the highest-performing countries on that exam, and its scores in some categories have jumped significantly since it first took part in 1995.

The state’s participation in the 1995 and 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study has given researchers information to dissect the factors that yielded the state’s impressive gains in some areas, particularly early-grades math. State officials credit the establishment and continued refinement of academic standards, as well as their efforts to translate those documents for classroom teachers, as prime factors behind the progress.

Degrees of Achievement

Parents’ level of education tends to correlate with students’ scores, with some exceptions, according to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.


SOURCE: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

“The whole standards movement has really paid dividends,” said Tom Muchlinki, a former high school math teacher who is now the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a professional association. “They’ve helped get the curriculum focused. ... The content is becoming more uniform around the state.”

Minnesota scored above international averages in the four major categories measured on TIMSS, 4th and 8th grade math and science. From 1995 to 2007, the state made its biggest gains in 4th grade math, improving from a 516 to a 554 on a 1,000-point scale. It was one of the largest such jumps among any of the 22 countries and jurisdictions that took part in both tests in that subject those years, putting Minnesota’s progress on par with nations like England and Slovenia, which also made major strides.

In the other categories, the state notched a 532 in 8th grade math, 551 in 4th grade science, and 539 in 8th grade science—all higher than the international TIMSS average. Minnesota’s scores were also statistically higher than the U.S. average in every major TIMSS category, except 4th grade science.

While Minnesota’s science scores have remained relatively flat since 1995, state officials say a strong informal network of science teachers and advocates across the state has encouraged consistent and high-quality lessons in that subject from the 1990s to today.

The release of TIMSS last month came as American policymakers are paying increasing attention to not just the test scores, but also to the curricula, testing, and teacher-training, and pay policies of high-performing nations, in the hope of discerning which models could apply to U.S. schools. (“Pressure for International Benchmarks Builds,” Jan. 7, 2009.)

More Focused Content?

Only one other U.S. state, Massachusetts, took part in TIMSS in both 1995, the first year of test results, and 2007. Like Minnesota, Massachusetts has drawn praise for establishing clear and demanding academic standards. Its 4th and 8th grade math and science scores exceeded international and U.S. averages in all four major categories.

Minnesota’s state board of education did not adopt standards in math and science until 1998, well after many states had crafted such documents. The state’s math standards have been revised twice since. The science document has been redrawn once, with another revision under way. Minnesota officials were influenced by the curricula of top-performing TIMSS countries during those processes.

Between 1995 and today, the focus of math lessons in Minnesota has shifted significantly, one analysis suggests.

In the mid-1990s, 4th grade teachers reported spending only about one-third of their math lessons on number skills such as addition, subtraction, and fractions, topics that were receiving significantly more attention in many foreign nations, according to William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. The state’s math teachers were instead devoting more time to an assortment of relatively “unfocused” topics, concluded Mr. Schmidt, who used TIMSS data to analyze math instruction in Minnesota for state officials.

By 2007, the portion of class time dedicated to number-related topics had risen to about 60 percent, Mr. Schmidt found. In addition, 8th grade teachers reported focusing far more on algebra in 2007 than they had in 1995, said Mr. Schmidt, who examined the most recent TIMSS results. TIMSS places a relatively heavy emphasis on algebra, according to his analysis.

Mr. Schmidt, in his past research, has found that American schools tend to cover core math and science more superficially than those in some foreign countries. Minnesota officials “looked underneath” their TIMSS scores to what is being taught in classrooms, he said in an interview. “That’s where all states could really benefit.”

Patty Wallace, who teaches math and other subjects at Baxter Elementary School in the 6,800-student Brainerd Independent School District 181, said Minnesota schools concentrate more on building students” deep understanding of relatively simple math concepts than they did a decade or two ago. She has helped state officials work on Minnesota’s math standards.

“We spend a lot of time looking and thinking about numbers and how they work,” said Ms. Wallace, who’s been teaching for 17 years. “We certainly didn’t do that when I was in 2nd grade.”

Among older students, Minnesota is one of only two states, along with California, to be phasing in a requirement that all students take introductory algebra in 8th grade. (A judge has blocked California’s mandate from taking effect.) Minnesota is also phasing in a mandate that students take Algebra 2 before graduating from high school.

NAEP Connection

While it would seem natural that Minnesota’s scores on TIMSS would rise as its standards have become more aligned to those of high-performing TIMSS nations, the state’s gains likely reflect real classroom improvements, in Mr. Schmidt’s view. The content of TIMSS, he noted, is not based on the curricula of any one country but is instead a “compendium” of the content covered across the nations participating on the test. That suggests students are making progress by several measures, he said.

Gary W. Phillips, a researcher who has compared U.S. states’ performance with those of foreign countries, said it was plausible to draw a connection between Minnesota improving its curricula and its gains on TIMSS. He said Minnesota’s and Massachusetts’ strong showings were not surprising, given their strong scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test which has a similar focus on school-based curricula.

Mr. Phillips predicted that more states will take part in international tests in the years ahead, though he acknowledged that those that haven’t scored as well on NAEP as Massachusetts and Minnesota might be reluctant to go through an international vetting.

“States need to go outside their boundaries to see what [other states and foreign countries are] doing,” argued Mr. Phillips, a chief scientist at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit organization in Washington. Tests like TIMSS allow that, he said.

Translation for Teachers

Minnesota gives districts broad influence over curriculum, which complicates efforts to promote state standards, a number of observers from the state said. To encourage the use of those documents, SciMath Minnesota, a statewide business and education coalition, led an undertaking in the late 1990s to devise math and science frameworks, aimed at translating the standards for teachers, said Mike Lindstrom, the executive director of the organization.

SciMath Minnesota distributes those frameworks and posts them on the organization’s Web site. Teachers and administrators use them to craft lessons, tests, and professional-development activities, Mr. Lindstrom said. The frameworks also allow teachers to identify essential content quickly, relieving them from having to slog through enormous textbooks to find it, he added.

Massachusetts officials, meanwhile, credit strong professional development as a factor behind their state’s strong TIMSS scores, said J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the state education department. Since 1994, the state has sponsored content ‘institutes” for teachers across subjects; about 8,700 of the 12,000 participants teach math- and science-related courses, he said. The state also has promoted partnerships between high-need districts and universities in teacher training, a venture supported by federal Title II-B funding.

Overall, Minnesota’s and Massachusetts’ TIMSS experience should hearten state and federal policymakers otherwise discouraged by U.S. students’ mixed record on international exams, by showing them the potential power of statewide efforts in curriculum and other areas, said Alice Seagren, Minnesota’s commissioner of education.

“I said we should have had a parade down the Nicollet Mall when we got the results,” Ms. Seagren said. “For us, the biggest thing has been a validation [of] the changes to our standards and [improving] our standards. Our business community was very excited. They see this as a future workforce issue.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Standards Help Minn. Vie With Top Nations


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