World's Largest Science Test Makes Massachusetts Schools Look Good

Why "We're No. 2!" is not a bad thing: High scores on an international science and math exam taken by eighth graders around the world show that Massachusetts students are doing better than American students as a whole.

Our citywide angst over the education of Boston’s children caught a break this week, with the good-news results for Massachusetts from an international study of mathematics and science achievement.

The ray of sunshine in these parts is that Massachusetts eighth graders scored second highest in the world on the science portion of the TIMSS, the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Just Singapore’s scores were higher. In math, the Commonwealth ranked sixth behind South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

The test, taken by 600,000 eighth graders worldwide, is meant to show learning trends over time and has been given every four years since 1995. Massachusetts participated at a level which allowed statistical comparisons with 63 countries and 14 “benchmarking entities” (eight other states, three Canadian provinces, and two of the United Arab Emirates). Notably, two countries which are frequently mentioned in the same breath with the United States when we talk about all sorts of competition—China and India—did not participate. 

Gov. Deval Patrick this week highlighted that Massachusetts students made significant gains over their scores from the last (2007) test. And, since 1999, they’ve made the most progress in math of any country or benchmarking entity, and the second highest gains in science. By comparison, U.S. eighth graders as a whole ranked ninth in math, and tenth in science, against 62 other countries.

When Boston wrestles with below state average MCAS scores, below state average SAT scores, and other measures that might prevent you from being more optimistic on a bad day—does this rosy picture make you wonder if any kid you know anywhere in Boston took that test?

By meticulous design of the random sampling, some Boston eighth graders must have. Some 2,075 students from 56 schools across the state sat for the 90-minute test, which included both fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice and written-answer questions. With an emphasis on the big picture, since the data are coded, not even the test administrators know the individual schools and students in the mix.

Coincidentally, the exams are created and administered right here in our higher education powerhouse metro area: The TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center is at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. To conduct the 2011 TIMSS, $11.5 million was awarded to BC by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and in part by the US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Internationally, every country and entity funds its participation in the tests.

A companion test, PIRLS, or Performance on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, is given to fourth graders to measure reading comprehension, but Massachusetts did not participate as a benchmark entity in 2011.

As the IEA’s executive director says, the “data have become integral to education policy-making in a global context.” It’s a measure of the significance of these tests that everyone from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to international education bloggers has weighed in on the results. Nationally, it’s a good news/bad news mix. As Mr. Duncan’s blog post says, “The results of the TIMSS and PIRLS assessments show both that our students are on the path to progress—and that we still have a long journey to go before all of America’s children get an excellent education.” 

Some opine that, given the US’s global position as a leader in innovation, perhaps high test scores have a questionable correlation to a nation’s success, giving us less incentive to try to be No. 1 on any exam. Yet there are still too many students who aren’t battling for the top, but just trying to get in the game. Achievement gaps are common to every country, and it’s no less true in Boston.

So even as our state leaders hailed Massachusetts’s performance, they also reminded that we can do better. As Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester added in the governor’s press release, “We will use (TIMSS) results along with other data to identify where gaps in achievement still exist as we strive to ensure that all students are ready for success after high school."


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