Massachusetts beats Finland

Finland is an education “miracle story,” according to one set of international tests, but nothing special on others, reports Ed Week’s Curriculum Matters. “If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average on the 2011 TIMSS, or Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, released last month. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as “benchmarking education systems” on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana.

. . . “Finland’s exaggerated reputation is based on its performance on PISA, an assessment that matches up well with its way of teaching math,” said Loveless, which he described as “applying math to solve ‘real world’ problems.”

He added, “In contrast, TIMSS tries to assess how well students have learned the curriculum taught in schools.”

Finland’s score of 514 on TIMSS for 8th grade math was close to the U.S. average of 509 and well below Massachusetts’ score of 561. Finland was way, way below South Korea on TIMSS but nearly as high on PISA.

Finland beat the U.S. average on TIMSS science section, but was well under Massachusetts.

In 4th grade reading, Finland beat the U.S. average on PIRLS (Progress in International Reading, Literacy Study), but scored about as well as Florida, the only U.S. state to participate.

Finland’s seventh graders dropped from above average to below average on TIMSS math. Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture said this was “mostly due to a gradual shift of focus in teaching from content mastery towards problem-solving and use of mathematical knowledge.”

U.S. students lag Asians in math, science, reading

Despite some gains, U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, science and reading, according to two international tests, the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, known as PIRLS, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, referred to as TIMSS.

U.S. fourth-graders’ math and reading scores improved since the last time students took the tests several years ago, while eighth-graders remained stable in math and science. Americans outperformed the international average in all three subjects but remained far behind students in such places as Singapore and Hong Kong, especially in math and science.

In fourth-grade math, for example, students in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Ireland and the Flemish region of Belgium outperformed U.S. students.

. . . In eighth-grade science, children in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia, Russia and Hong Kong beat U.S. students.

Some U.S. states participated. Florida, the only state that volunteered to take the fourth-grade reading exam, did very well, virtually tying Hong Kong, the top scorer. Third graders must pass Florida’s state exam to move into fourth grade.

Massachusetts’ eighth graders excelled in science and math. The state’s students placed fifth in math, behind  Singapore. South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan, and second in science, below Singapore.

U.S. students do well in the early grades, but don’t improve as much over time as students in other high-scoring countries, notes Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post.

“When we start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time,” said Jack Buckley, who leads the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The U.S. ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading, seventh in fourth-grade science and ninth in fourth-grade math; that dropped to 13th in eighth-grade science and 12th in eighth-grade math. (Reading wasn’t measured in eighth grade.)

“These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained in eighth grade, where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve.”

Japan goes ‘back to basics’

Worried about competition from South Korea and Hong Kong, Japanese schools are  going “back to basics,” reports AP.

In a move that has divided educators and experts, Japan is going back to basics after a 10-year experiment in “pressure-free education,” which encouraged more application of knowledge and less rote memorization.

. . . Japan’s near-the-top rank on international standardized tests has fallen, stunning this nation where education has long been a source of pride.

The Education Ministry is fattening up textbooks and raising expectations as part of the back-to-basics drive.

Science and math textbooks will see the biggest additions, getting 60 percent more pages compared to earlier this decade. Among new concepts: Fifth-graders will learn how to calculate the area of a trapezoid and sixth-graders will learn about electricity.

An hour or two of school will be added each week, depending on the grade, and English will be introduced in fifth grade instead of seventh. Middle and high school students can expect similar changes in subsequent years.

Traditionally, Japanese students have crammed to pass university entrance examinations, then coasted through college.

Getting into the right university goes a long way toward determining one’s job, income level and place in society — a system that many Japanese agree needs to change.

“Pressure-free education” tried to shift emphasis from memorization to applying knowledge. Students were encouraged to think creatively and express their own views.

Curricular requirements were reduced, Saturday half-day classes were phased out, and teachers were told to take three hours each week to engage in learning driven by students’ questions, such as “Why doesn’t a sleeping bird fall from its perch on a branch?”

On the international PISA exam, Japan’s rank dropped sharply in math, science and reading, despite PISA’s stress on applying knowledge to real-life situations.

Japanese students dropped slightly in math and stayed in third place in science on TIMSS, which is more geared toward knowledge.

The current system has been a “huge failure,” said Eiichi Kajita, president of International Pacific University, who helped craft the new curriculum guidelines. Education has become too child-centered, he argued.

“Teachers were told students should be supported, not taught,” Kajita said. “We need to revive a respect for knowledge. We also need more discipline.”

Teachers didn’t get enough training to make the new method work, says Mutsuko Takahashi, vice president of the Japan Teachers’ Union. The union is pushing for smaller class sizes — teachers have up to 40 students — to make it easier to teach new material.

Japan continues to outperform the U.S. in math and science on TIMSS and PISA.

Is PISA the best test?

U.S. students don’t excel on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), but it may not be the best test, writes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.  He cites a math question for 15-year-olds highlighted by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a member of the U.S. advisory board to PISA:

For a rock concert a rectangular field of size 100 m by 50 m was reserved for the audience. The concert was completely sold out and the field was full with all the fans standing. Which one of the following is likely to be the best estimate of the total number of people attending the concert?

A. 2000

B. 5000

C. 20000

D. 50000

E. 100000

Like Mathews, I answered 5,000; PISA says the answer is 20,000. Loveless agrees that the question involves trivial math and would “throw kids off.” Not every kid goes to rock concerts and not every culture is willing to cram four people in a square meter of space.

“PISA exams are written by the losing side in a century-old debate over how to teach math,” Mathews writes. The pro-PISA progressives “want to make math instruction more relevant to the real world, and emphasize mathematical reasoning more than calculation,” while the anti-PISA and pro-TIMSS  “traditionalists say you can’t reason well without mastering the fundamentals.”

Unlike TIMSS, PISA’s approach to science leans left, Mathews writes.

On PISA’s student questionnaire, those who support statements such as “I am in favor of having laws that regulate factory emissions even if this would increase the price of products” are deemed to be environmentally responsible. Those who disagree are not.

Despite the differences between PISA and TIMSS, however, some of the same countries —Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan — do very well on both.

The feds are spending $350 million to help states develop common tests to go with common standards.

How good are Common Core standards?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative gets a grade of B for its proposed English Language Arts and math standards in a new Fordham report, Stars By Which to Navigate? Scanning National and International Education Standards in 2009.

Four expert analysts concluded:

• PISA strikes out. Neither in reading (literacy) nor in math does its content deserve better than a grade of “D.” This is no promising benchmark for American K-12 education.

• NAEP fares better, with a “C” for its math framework and “B” grades in reading and writing. But it ought to be better than it is.

• TIMSS does really well in math, earning an “A.” (Math and science are all that TIMSS touches.)

Common Core drafters “state clearly that these standards need to be accompanied by a rich, content-based curriculum,” but don’t try to specify what that content should be, write Checker Finn and Amber Winkler on Education Gadfly. That avoids bitter fights over reading lists, but makes it essential that states develop content guidelines.

Finn and Winkler warn that the validation panel is not staffed by experts and that it relies on “an unwarranted conceit” that the common-core standards must be “evidence based.”

Most of them are not and cannot be, at least not today, given the state of research into what skills and knowledge are truly necessary to succeed in college and the workplace.

Despite limitations, the draft standards “are pretty good, better in fact than many of us expected,” write Finn and Winkler.

. . .  there’s tons of work ahead, including “backward-mapping” them from the end of high school through grades K-8; building aligned assessments that will give them traction; and developing the curricular materials (especially in reading/writing etc.) that will bring them to life in the classroom.

So far, Common Core has avoided the controversy that’s plagued previous efforts to develop national standards, writes the Washington Post.

Overconfident, underperforming

Don’t Think Too Highly of Yourself, warns Mark Bauerlein on the Education Next blog.  Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, he writes, “higher confidence does not go with better math scores.”   The Brown Center’s How Well Are American Students Learning? report used TIMSS data to compare eighth-grade students in different countries.

“Countries with more confident students who enjoy the subject matter–and with teachers who strive to make mathematics relevant to students’ daily lives–do not do as well as countries that rank lower on indices of confidence, enjoyment, and relevance.”

. . .  U.S. students rated themselves much more highly than did students in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Chinese Taipei, but they scored well behind that insecure group.  While 93 percent of U.S. eighth-graders failed to achieve an advanced score on the test, only 5 percent of them “disagreed a lot” with the statement that they “do well in math.”

A new report in the September issue of Learning and Individual Difference compares 15-year-olds’ reading skills in 34 countries, Bauerlein writes.  Students who lacked confidence in their skills tended to perform better than their classmates, while the overconfident performed worse.

Overconfidence “can be a sign not of prior superior achievement, but of inferior achievement, a defense mechanism against poor performance and skill level,” Bauerlein writes.

Via 11D, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry make fun of self-esteem on the not-Oprah Show.

And see the self-esteem section of It ain’t necessarily so.

U.S. is average on international tests

On two international tests, U.S. students scored in the middle of the pack in reading, math and science, concludes an Education Department analysis. Curriculum Matters reports:

On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007, both 4th and 8th graders scored above the scale average in math, and scores for U.S. students increased since 1995. Fourth graders in eight of the 35 other countries taking the test scored higher on average than 4th graders in the United States. Eighth graders in five of the 47 other participating countries performed better than U.S. students.

In both grades, top scorers came from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

On the Program for International Student Assessment 2006, given to 15-year-olds, U.S. students were below the average scale score in math. That put U.S. students in the bottom quarter of performance for participating countries. They’ve been in that spot since 2003.

In science, TIMSS 2007 showed above-average scores for U.S. 4th and 8th graders scored above the average scale score in science, while U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the average on PISA 2006. Again Asian students led the world.

U.S. students were above average, but nothing special, in reading, reports the Washington Examiner.

Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore and parts of Canada lead the world in reading at the elementary level, while Korean students earned top marks at the high school level, according to the report.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan used the results to call for national standards.