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THE SECOND DERIVATIVE: Student Math Proficiency in States and Districts Fails to Measure up to Global Benchmark

“These Asian nations consistently perform at the B+, B, and B- levels.”

According to a recent report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the math performance of American students in almost every state and city is ranked “average” at best and pales in comparison to student performance in several Asian countries including Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, and Japan. In grade eight, Massachusetts is the only state achieving academic proficiency and fully preparing its students to compete with students from top nations.

“These Asian nations consistently perform at the B+, B, and B- levels,” said report author and AIR vice president and chief scientist Gary W. Phillips. “Their students are learning mathematics not just at a higher level than students in the United States, but at a level that is a quantum leap higher.”

The Second Derivative: International Benchmarks in Mathematics for U.S. States and School Districts pulls from data provided in the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and uses it to create a new international letter-grade index, which assumes a grade of B as the benchmark.

“The grade of B was chosen because this report shows it is statistically equivalent to the Proficient level on NAEP that has been recommended by the National Assessment Governing Board and No Child Left Behind as the level of performance we should expect from our students,” the report reads.

The math proficiency average for U.S. students is C+ in grade four and C at grade eight, indicating a general tendency for students to drop in performance as they advance through middle school. Unfortunately, this decrease in mathematical competency was observed at both the state and district levels. For example, four major districts (Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Cleveland) fell from C to D levels from grade four to grade eight. Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, were the only two cities that performed at the average score of the participating Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

At the state level in eighth-grade math, only Massachusetts’ students achieved a letter grade of B. And five states (Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont) fell from B to C level from grade four to grade eight.

Estimated TIMSS Mean Achievement in Each State Benchmarked Against an International Grade of “B,” 2007 Mathematics, Grade 8

the second derivative

Source: The Second Derivative: International Benchmarks in Mathematics for U.S. States and School Districts

The report echoes U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s call for states to develop internationally benchmarked standards in order to best prepare our students to compete in a global economy. In his June 14 speech at the Governors Education Symposium, Duncan remarked, “Today, our standards are too low—and the results on international tests show it. Worse yet, we see the signals in the international economy as more and more engineers, doctors, science and math PhDs come from abroad.”

The international comparisons provided in the AIR study are helpful in understanding the high expectations the states are facing in their effort to develop common internationally benchmarked standards. In Phillips’ words, “The race to the top starts with knowing where we stand and how high the bar is over which we need to jump. Establishing state or national thresholds uninformed by what is happening around the world is like flying without radar.”

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