Data Debate: Smartest U.S. states don’t hold a candle to global competitors

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

Order State Score
1 Massachusetts 299
2 Minnesota 295
3 New Jersey 294
4 Vermont 294
5 Montana 293
6 New Hampshire 292
7 North Dakota 292
8 Colorado 292
9 South Dakota 291
10 Texas 290
11 Kansas 290
12 Virginia 289
13 Maine 289
14 Wisconsin 289
15 Ohio 289
16 Washington 288
17 Maryland 288
18 DoDEA 288
19 Wyoming 288
20 Connecticut 287
21 Idaho 287
22 North Carolina 286
23 Pennsylvania 286
24 Indiana 285
25 Iowa 285
26 Utah 283
27 Alaska 283
28 Illinois 283
29 Nebraska 283
30 Rhode Island 283
31 Delaware 283
? National public 283
32 Oregon 283
33 Missouri 282
34 Kentucky 282
35 South Carolina 281
36 New York 280
37 Michigan 280
38 Oklahoma 279
39 Arkansas 279
40 Arizona 279
41 Georgia 278
42 Nevada 278
43 Florida 278
44 Hawaii 278
45 New Mexico 274
46 Tennessee 274
47 West Virginia 273
48 Louisiana 273
49 California 273
50 Mississippi 269
51 Alabama 269
52 District of Columbia 260

(This report was generated using the NAEP State Comparisons Tool.

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.

Prior coverage:

Unclear where U.S. students stand in math and science



POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON October 30, 2013

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