We’re used to hearing policymakers and business leaders bemoan how poorly American students perform in math and science. So it was pleasant to hear that the 2011 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) test results ranked Massachusetts 8th graders second only to Singapore in science and 6th in the world in math.
Developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), TIMSS is an international assessment of mathematics and science achievement that has been administered to 4th and 8th grade students every four years since 1995, allowing for comparative study of student performance among nations. In 2011, representative samples of students from 63 countries, including nine U.S. states, participated in TIMSS. Massachusetts participated only at the 8th grade level for 2011.
Within the U.S., Massachusetts’ 8th grade math students bested their peers in the other eight participating states (Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, California, Alabama) and the U.S. In science, Massachusetts 8th graders scored similarly to their peers in Minnesota and outperformed them in the remaining seven participating states and the U.S. as a whole.
Massachusetts’s scores have improved steadily since Massachusetts’s public schools began participating in TIMSS in 1999. In fact, Massachusetts has improved more than any other participating state or nation. It’s nipping at the heels of the top-performing Asian countries. Where is the improvement coming from?
Tumblehome Learning’s Penny Noyce identifies several trends she thinks gives Massachusetts an edge in math and science learning:
- Massachusetts is blessed with a concentration of highly-educated parents, science-based industries, and universities that provide a strong constituency for math and science education.
- A vigorous informal science sector, from the Museum of Science to a strong science fair community to small projects started by university professors helps build student interest and teacher morale.
- Massachusetts moved in the early 1990’s to create high curriculum standards and high quality assessments. Moreover, it did so with substantial teacher and community buy-in and participation.
- The state has worked hard in recent years to strengthen teacher quality with improved coursework at state colleges, testing in the content areas for prospective teachers, supportive leadership at the state level and a wide variety of professional development offerings.
- Public and private partnerships with National Science Foundation, the Educational Development Center, TERC, the Concord Consortium and others have also improved teaching and learning by providing quality and up-to-date professional development for teachers in rapidly developing fields.
- Perhaps most important has been consistency of message and policy. The business community, through such organizations as the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and MassInsight, has partnered with philanthropy and government to maintain a level of quiet urgency and pressure for reform. This pressure has helped to maintain funding and buffer Massachusetts from politically-motivated quick-fix solutions or wild policy swings.
The Massachusetts education system is far from perfect. Though their performance continues to improve, African-American and Hispanic students, especially English language learners, still lag far behind their Asian and Caucasian peers. The state is trying new strategies, including widespread training in Sheltered English Instruction and longer school days in some urban districts. If the past is any guide, Massachusetts will thoughtfully implement and carefully evaluate these interventions. In doing so, the state will try to blaze a path that any state can follow to offer a world-class education to its students.
Take a sample TIMSS test here.