Monday, May 14, 2001

School Testing

A posting from George Curtis from MDK-12@UMDD.UMD.EDU:

I have this old political cartoon on my wall from THE BAY TIMES newspaper on the Eastern Shore it shows a large pig on a scale. There is a picture of a farmer and a scientist standing next to the pig.

The farmer say, “Weighs the same as an hour ago...maybe if we feed him?”

The scientist says, “No...No...No...Just keep testing him until his weight increases.”

The bottom of the cartoon reads, “If agriculture were run like the Department of Education.”

A posting from Peter Donahoe which appeared 5/10/01 on MDK-12@UMDD.UMD.EDU:

It might interest you to know that Maryland’s eighth-graders, on average, appear to know a little less math and science than eighth-graders elsewhere in the United States and a lot less than children in many countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Australia and Slovenia. I’m not even mentioning places like Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, which lead the world in math and science?

A 5/10/01 posting on MDK-12@UMDD.UMD.EDU from Jim Morrow wrote:

I’m REALLY surprised... especially with all the testing that Maryland does..Maybe we should start giving the tests weekly.. I’m sure that if we give the tests often enough our results will improve..

This is the article from the Washington Post:

Maryland Math, Science Learning Dip, International Test Shows

By Karin Chenoweth

Thursday, May 10, 2001; Page HO21

It might interest you to know that Maryland's eighth-graders, on average, appear to know a little less math and science than eighth-graders elsewhere in the United States and a lot less than children in many countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Australia and Slovenia. I'm not even mentioning places like Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, which lead the world in math and science.

I know this because Maryland participated, as if it were a separate country, in an international test of eighth-gradestudents in 1999. So we now have important data to help us think about what children should know and how our schools are doing. The 1999 test was a repeat of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) administered four years earlier.

Because of TIMSS, we realize that American fourth-graders know, on average, as much math and science asmost in the world, while our eighth-graders are about in the middle of the pack and our 12th-graders can barely compete with students in the poorest and least developed countries.

The 1999 retest, known as TIMSS-R, was done partly to test the notion that some special characteristic of fourth-graders who took the test in 1995 would keep them at the top. No such luck. Kids who performed so well then were just average in 1999, seemingly on the same downward path as their older brothers and sisters.

This confirms much other data indicating that something begins to happen in our middle grades that retards the pace of learning for most kids. It isn't that they aren't learning math and science, but they tend not to learn as much as children elsewhere in the world, as evidenced by how the 38 participating countries did.

If Howard County had participated as a separate country, it probably would have performed better than the whole of Maryland. Part of the reason lies in demographics. In general, the wealthier the jurisdiction, the better its students did on TIMSS-R, and Howard is wealthier than most of Maryland.

All of the 13 states tested performed at about the national and international averages. But the wealthy school districts in those states performed much better and the poor ones much worse.

The biggest exception was probably the Michigan Invitational Group, a collection of diverse school districts that demographically match the rest of Michigan. Those districts have been working closely with the National Science Foundation to develop high-quality math and science programs, and they performed much better than Michigan as a whole.

This is an exciting finding because it demonstrates that attention to teacher training, a strong curriculum and high-quality materials can make a significant difference in student achievement. Howard can also look at neighboring Montgomery County for an idea of how it would have performed. Montgomery County was 10th in math in the world and 26th in science.

Like Howard, Montgomery has been pushing more students to take algebra in eighth grade. About 40 percent of eighth-graders in both counties take algebra, compared with about 33 percent statewide. So my guess is that Howard County, like Montgomery, would have been in the top 25 percent.

All of the participating states and districts deserve a lot of credit. It isn't every school superintendent who wants his or her district judged against world standards, and all who agreed to do so should be applauded for their intellectual courage. This is especially true for urban districts that participated.

It is tough, for example, to explain to parents in Dade County, Fla. (Miami), why their children scored way below national and international averages. But Dade, and Rochester, Chicago and Jersey City, which also participated, are determined to help their kids learn at high levels, and this is one way they're proving that.

The TIMSS-R provides a rich source of information about our expectations of children today. For example, American kids performed badly on a rather simple problem asking for the area of a shaded rectangle within a parallelogram. Only 34 percent of Maryland students and 45 percent of Montgomery students answered correctly.

In this country, we tend not to teach geometry until high school. In Singapore, where geometry is woven into the math curriculum more consistently, 83 percent of eighth-graders got the right answer.

There's a lot more information that can be mined from the TIMSS-R, because students, teachers and principals were also surveyed about interesting issues. For example, if anyone thinks that kids today don't realize that it's important to do well in school, forget it.

More than 95 percent of the 3,317 Maryland students surveyed said it's important to do well in math, science and language. But 98 percent also think that it's important to have fun and 84 percent to be good at sports. While students also overwhelmingly said their mothers thought it important that students do well, only 76 percent said their friends do.

This contrasts sharply, for example, with what students in Singapore believe about their friends. That might be one small factor in why Singapore's eighth-graders lead the world in math.

Here's another interesting fact: 40 percent of Maryland's math teachers report that they majored in mathematics and an additional 35 percent in math education, fairly comparable with the rest of the country.

But here's the kicker: 92 percent of Maryland's eighth-grade math teachers say they feel well prepared to teach eighth-grade math. This high level of confidence, and the lower level of training, contrasts sharply with that of the top performers in the world.

For example, in Singapore, only 66 percent of eighth-grade math teachers say they feel well prepared to teach eighth-grade math although a higher percentage of them were actually trained in the field. It appears that the more you know, the greater your appreciation of the complexities of the field -- and the less confident you may be that you are prepared to teach it.

By the way, if your kids complain they have more homework than others, they now have some evidence. According to surveys filled out by teachers, 73 percent of Maryland eighth-graders are assigned math homework three or more times a week. That compares with 63 percent of eighth-graders nationwide.

TIMSS-R provides a wealth of information, and I've only skimmed the surface. For more, go to, where half of the 300 test questions are posted. It's kind of fun to see how you and your kids stack up against Singaporean and Japanese students.

Homeroom, which appears every other week, is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, Howard Extra, 10490 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Suite 650, Columbia, Md. 21044. The fax number is 410-772-2330; the e-mail address is To see previous columns, go to, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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