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News / Bad news
The latest data released by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study is a classic case of good news/bad news.
The good news for Michigan is that the state’s eighth-grade students who participated in what is known as timss-repeat (timss-r) outscored the 12 other states in the study. The group of Michigan students came from 57 randomly selected schools, including those in urban, suburban, and rural districts.
The strong results by Michigan students drew praise from Gov. John Engler, who announced the findings at a news conference in April.
“This study shows that Michigan’s efforts to improve our schools are paying off,” Engler said. “Michigan eighth- graders lead the nation in math and science scores compared to other states that participated in the study. Even more important, these scores show that schools that have adopted a curriculum that dovetails with state standards do well—regardless of the socioeconomic status of its students.”
The bad news is that neither Michigan nor any of the other states posted strong enough scores to place them among the top nations in the world in mathematics and science. Out of 38 countries in the study, the U.S. as a whole ranked 18th in science and 19th in mathematics.
“There are no world class performances among the participating states,” said University Distinguished Professor William Schmidt, who is executive director of the timss National Research Center based at the college.
The study is designated as timss-r because it tested a new group of eighth-grade students in 1999. timss had first tested eighth-graders in 1995 and found that American students performed poorly. timss-r was a benchmarking study allowing states and school districts to assess their comparative international standing and evaluate their mathematics
and science programs. In the U.S., 14 school districts or groups of school districts participated in the study.
To Schmidt, the data also show a relationship between the relative wealth of districts and students’ achievement in the subject areas.
“The relatively poor comparative performance of U.S. eighth graders is the story for the participating states,” Schmidt said. “Nationally, this is related to a middle-school curriculum that is not coherent, and is not as demanding as that found in other countries we studied. U.S. eighth-grade students study arithmetic, for example, but the children in the top-achieving countries study algebra and geometry.
“Clearly we need national leadership from the state level aimed at developing a demanding, coherent national consensus of what is important for U.S. students to know in mathematics and science. The results imply that the problem is national in scope and is not likely to be addressed on a state-by-state basis.”
The greater achievement among wealthier districts, he said, also points to the need for a national consensus. timss-r found that one district in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago (Naperville School District #203) outperformed all other nations in the study in science.
“There was enormous variation in the performance of students across the 14 districts. Students in urban settings performed far worse than the United States as a whole and radically different from students in suburban settings,” Schmidt said. “The results seem to intimate that it is also a matter of system differences and not only individual ability and family background.
“The data indicate a strong relationship between what students in districts are taught in mathematics and measures of the wealth and social class of those districts or consortia. Those that ‘have,’ get more.”
Schmidt explained that there is a substantially greater opportunity for students in wealthier districts to be in mathematics classes focusing on algebra instead of repeating the same arithmetic studied from first grade and on.
Two timss-r findings illustrate Schmidt’s argument.
In Illinois, 39 percent of the students were in classes where the mathematics curriculum focused mainly on arithmetic. By comparison, only nine percent of the students were in such classes for the 23 countries that participated in both the 1995 and 1999 timss study.
Furthermore, almost half of the students in Chicago were in arithmetic-oriented classes. In the Naperville school district, only four percent were in arithmetic classes. “The variation within Illinois was tremendous and the overall average for the state reflected the preponderance of urban students,” Schmidt said.
For Schmidt, Michigan is a positive ray of hope. In Michigan, only about one fourth of the eighth graders were in arithmetic-oriented classes. In addition, a set of schools that participated in the study and which are oriented around principles of coherence and rigor in
standards and testing had only nine percent of their students in arithmetic-oriented classes.
This set of schools did not differ demographically from the state as a whole. They differed only in the ways in which the curricula and expectations were organized, Schmidt said.
“Can U.S. students do better on these tests than they have so far? There is reason students find greater opportunities and students with greater opportunities usually achieve more. Without national leadership, it would appear that the United States will continue to have only accidental enclaves of excellence.”
The study, supported by the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a collaborative effort between states, districts, and the timss International Study Center at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.