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State among those taking steps to boost students’ world rankings

International test results out this week show America’s 15-year-olds lagging behind their peers in science and math, again.  That’s worrisome. 

The U.S. kids ranked lower than average, about 25th in math and 21st in science among 30 industrialized countries tested in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, aka PISA.

Maybe the last time America was seriously concerned about the science and math taught in its classrooms was 1957. The Soviets had just launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, thus finishing first in the race to space. That terrified us, but also spurred passage a year later of the National Defense Education Act, which helped revamp math and science curricula across the country.

Global-economy competition fueling new push
These days, it’s the global economy and the fear of falling behind China and Asia that’s got Minnesota and the rest of the nation searching for answers. Both President Bush and state Education Commisioner Alice Seagren are advising “more rigor” in America’s schools. The question is: Where do we go from here?

“We want to benchmark our (state) standards to international academic achievement,” Seagren said Thursday. “We know our students are not learning the same level of math and science other students in other nations are learning at younger ages,” she said. But the state is working to remedy that.

In PISA results, Finland’s 15-year-olds did best on the science test, followed by students in Hong Kong and Canada. The Finns came out tops in math, too, along with Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

While researching PISA scores, I stumbled across a new international comparison, “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind: Mathematics and Science Indicators for Comparing States and Nations.” Published last month by the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit independent scientific research firm, it gives Minnesota bragging rights.

The study compares eighth-graders in individual states against their peers in top performing foreign nations. Minnesota kids score high nationally and internationally, right up there with Massachusetts and North Dakota.

In science, students in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin trail only students in Singapore and Taiwan, while performing as well as or better than students in the other 45 countries surveyed. In mathematics, students in 49 states and the District of Columbia are behind their counterparts in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Asian countries still outperforming us
The bad news is that students in Singapore and several other Asian countries significantly outperform even top-performing American students.

“In this case, the bad news trumps the good because our Asian economic competitors are winning the race to prepare students in math and science,” the study’s author, Gary W. Phillips, told the New York Times.

Seagren said Minnesota is doing “fairly well in the science area with clear content, rich science standards” but acknowledged that math “is a little lower on scores.”

But change is on the horizon. Seagren pointed to recent state efforts to set new standards to be implemented for the graduating class of 2015: the algebra I requirement for eighth-graders and algebra II requirement for high school graduation. That will mean math curriculum changes all the way down to kindergarten. Also, teams of math teachers this summer will begin attending a so-called Math Teacher Academy to boost their professional development and make math curriculum changes. Science teachers will receive training in the future.

Larry Gray, head of the math department at the University of Minnesota, praises steps already taken here to better position students in math, such as bringing algebra I to eighth-graders and the teacher academies. “The Legislature has really raised the bar in math,” said Gray, who co- chairs the state educational task force behind the Math and Science Teacher Academies.
Gerry Fry, a College of Education professor in the department of educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota, wasn’t surprised by the PISA results. He cited journalist Thomas L. Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” as demonstrating that the United States is neglecting math and science education, compared with other countries.

But Fry, who has observed and studied what he called impressive educational systems in Japan, cautioned that American’s strengths in problem-solving and creativity often cannot be picked up by such tests.

He believes, though, that the United States must make education a higher priority.

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