On Oct. 24, 2013, Julia Ryan wrote in The Atlantic that American Education isn’t Mediocre — It’s Deeply Unequal, after digesting new test score data that rank U.S. states among other nations. “Students in Massachusetts are doing great compared to their international peers, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Students in Alabama, Mississippi, and D.C., however, are languishing.”
I would argue that Massachusetts should be embarrassed and that inequities are old news.
We’ve known for a long time that Washington D.C., Alabama and Mississippi lag behind the nation in test scores. Every year, a national test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, is administered and the U.S. Department of Education releases a ranking of the states based on the scores. I just hopped onto the NCES site and generated a state-by-state ranking for eighth graders on the most recent 2011 math test.
Average Mathematics scale score sorted by all students (overall results), grade 8 public schools: By average scale score, 2011
|52||District of Columbia||260|
(This report was generated using the NAEP State Comparisons Tool.http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/)
We didn’t need fancy statisticians to rank U.S. states internationally to tell us that our high income states are doing a lot better than our low income states.
The new news is the international rankings and that our “smartest” states don’t hold a candle to our global competitors. The problem is Massachusetts, which lags behind Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Japan in math. Massachusetts is our fourth wealthiest state as measured by per capita income or median family income. More than 80% of the state’s residents are non-Latino white or Asian. When we see the United States slipping in international rankings, #12 in math in 2011 on the TIMSS test, I used to think in my head, well, probably Massachusetts measures up. The Atlantic touted that Massachusetts outranked 42 education systems. But the majority of those are developing countries which includes Iran, Chile, Ghana and Kazakhstan. Most of Europe doesn’t take part in the TIMSS test anymore. And big countries like China and India never took the test. My hunch is that Massachusetts would be way below #6 if we had a more complete international ranking.
I talked with Bill Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University and an expert in international test scores. He worried that some states would take mistaken pride in their international rankings. “A certain state will claim that it’s ranked 5th, 6th or 7th in the world. That’s an absolutely silly comparison. It’s as if you looked at only the schools along the Champs Elysees in France and compared that with the whole United States,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt says that you have to try to find regions with similar levels of poverty or social class and compare them across countries. That’s hard to do.
Another international test, known as PISA, will be released in early December. Many more European countries take part in that one and it will be interesting to see where top U.S. students rank there.