Massachusetts leads the way in science and math education

For many years, educators in the U.S. have been able to do little more than cry at the disappointing test scores. For example, in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which tests mathematics and science, U.S. eighth graders ranked 11th in mathematics and 10th in science. While not disastrous, these scores are not very impressive for a nation that claims to be the world’s pre-eminent force in science and technology.

By comparison, Australian eighth graders ranked 19th in mathematics and 12th place in science. In Europe, Ireland, Belgium, Finland, England and Russia did fairly well in mathematics, ranking 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, respectively, but most nations ranked lower. In science, Finland, Slovenia, Russia, England and Hungary ranked 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th and 12th, respectively, but other nations, as in mathematics, only did fair.

All of the U.S., Australia and European nations all ranked lower than the Asian “tigers” (Korea, Singapore, Taiwan (Tapipei), Hong Kong and Japan) in both mathematics and science. The Asian tigers ranked 1st through 5th, respectively, in mathematics, and 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 8th and 4th, respectively, in science. Full details of the TIMSS tests and results are available in the mathematics report and the science report.

But as a recent New York Times report points out, the U.S. states were all not equally disappointing in their sores. If Massachusetts were a nation, its eighth graders would rank sixth worldwide in mathematics and second in science, behind only Singapore. And these relatively high scores are a significant improvement over the state’s earlier performance.

These improvements most are rooted in the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which specified additional funding, especially to urban schools, some ambitious academic achievement standards, and a test that students must pass before receiving their high school diplomas. Otherwise their program has been fairly conventional — no “vouchers” for private schools, merit pay or elimination of teacher tenure.

One of the key changes was to simply require more of all students, rich and poor. Education standards now require Algebra I of all eighth graders. As William Kendall, Director of Mathematics and Technology of the Braintree School District, explained, “We’re teaching it to everybody, and everybody is having success.”

But no one can argue with results. When the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests were first instituted, two thirds of the students in the poor Chelsea school district of Boston failed the mathematics test, and almost as many failed in science. But in 2012, 54% of the Chelsea students achieved “proficient” or “advanced” on the math portion of the required tests.

In the wake of these changes, Massachusetts rose to #1 in national tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education among the 50 states in mathematics.

Some have argued that Massachusetts’ relatively high scores among U.S. states are due to its higher-than-average median income and education levels. But the gains in performance that have been achieved in Massachusetts over the past decade or two have been fairly uniform across the state, including both rich and poor school districts. As Massachusetts education commissioner Mitchell D. Chester crowed, “I think we are a proof point of what’s possible.”

For additional details and discussion, see the New York Times report.

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