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How does US compare in math, science, reading? Younger students do better.

Two international studies show fourth- and eighth-grade scores in math, science, and reading in 2011. In the US, there’s no cause for alarm, or celebration.

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"These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps," US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "Learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained in eighth grade."

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As has been the case in past years, several Asian countries and systems, in particular, shine in math.

In fourth-grade math, for instance, 43 percent of Singapore students, and 39 percent of Korean students, reached the highest “advanced” benchmark – compared with just 13 percent of US students.

"A number of nations are out-educating us today in the STEM disciplines," noted Secretary Duncan. "And if we as a nation don’t turn that around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy."

What’s also notable is who isn’t among the very top scorers – most notably, Finland.

Based largely on its strong showing in the PISA (for Programme for International Student Achievement) scores, Finland has become a focal point for a number of education experts, who believe the US should use its system as a model.

But in the TIMSS data – especially on math – Finland wasn’t all that different from the US.

“Finland’s scores in math are statistically a dead heat” with the US, “which shows you how fragile that reputation, which is exaggerated, is,” says Mr. Loveless – who notes that Finland’s eighth-grade math scores have actually declined since Finland last took TIMSS, in 1999.

On PISA, for instance, Korea outscored Finland in eighth-grade math by just five points, but on TIMSS, it was 99 points higher. (The two tests use the same scale.)

The explanation, in large part, lies in the difference between the two tests, both of which have their advocates. PISA, which surveys 15-year-olds (regardless of the grade they are in), tries to measure how well students can apply knowledge. TIMSS tries to measure students’ knowledge.

Loveless (a TIMSS advocate) believes that TIMSS is the better measure of what schools around the world are doing – but more important, he notes, the differences between the two tests point to the pitfalls of basing too much in any single measure, or to cherry pick only certain data.

“The truth is that really the US does mediocre on math and science, and does quite well on PIRLS [reading], but we have a lot of room for improvement,” he says.

The 2011 TIMSS data also offer some insight into states: nine states participated at the eighth-grade level, and Florida and North Carolina also participated at the fourth-grade level. (Only Florida participated in the PIRLS fourth-grade reading.)

And some of those states did well, outperforming the US average.

At the eighth-grade level, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana scored above the US average in math, and Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado scored above the US average in science. (California and Alabama scored below the US average in both tests, and several other states weren’t measurably different.)

In eighth-grade science, only Singapore had a higher percentage of students reaching the “advanced” benchmark than the state of Massachusetts.

“For the US overall, our average performance is pretty respectable,” says Mr. Buckley. “But it’s interesting to see that among those states that volunteer [to take part in the test] we have some states performing among the highest systems in the world."

Duncan, in his assessment, was even more pointed, saying the strong showing of highly diverse states like Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina shows that "demography is not destiny in our schools."


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