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US gains in math and science ed...Really?

Results from the 2007 TIMSS, or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, were released this week with many outlets touting US gains over our fairly dismal performance on the last survey in 2003. According to the New York Times,American fourth- and eighth-grade students made solid achievement gains in math in recent years and in two states showed spectacular progress, an international survey of student achievement released on Tuesday found.

Results from the 2007 TIMSS, or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, were released this week with many outlets touting US gains over our fairly dismal performance on the last survey in 2003. According to the New York Times,

American fourth- and eighth-grade students made solid achievement gains in math in recent years and in two states showed spectacular progress, an international survey of student achievement released on Tuesday found. Science performance was flat.

My state in particular was cited for its improvements:

Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota, which participated in a special study that attributed a score to the states as if they were individual countries,also demonstrated stellar achievement, outperforming classmates in all but a handful of countries.

In eighth-grade science, for instance, Massachusetts students, on average, scored higher than or equal to students in all countries but Singapore and Taiwan.

It's fortunate that the researchers recognized the need to find more valid comparisons between the highly heterogeneous US population and those of "city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have populations of 4.5 million and 6.9 million people, respectively," but I have to say that I'm surprised that even Massachusetts has made significant gains given the lack of depth in education across the board.

Massachusetts, for example, has more state-defined learning standards than any other state in the Union. What this means is that we cover an awful lot of content with our students, but struggle with mastery because we can't cover anything in depth as is the case in Asian curricula.

Don't get me wrong...I'm thrilled with the gains and I know that teachers in my district (and, obviously, countless others) are working very hard to improve the quality of education. Yet the number of standards we need to include in our curricula or on the state standardized tests has certainly not decreased and we still see too many students attempting (and failing) to apply mathematical concepts in secondary school that they simply have not mastered in primary school.

One item to note: there is finally movement among the educational leadership to reexamine our standards, simultaneously raising the bar for achievement yet focusing on understanding key ideas with appropriate depth and rigor before moving students into new applications. If we can continue moving in this direction, we will see even more drastic gains within the international community.