The Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released its annual report on the state of American eduation last week, and the results were of the analysis -- which looked at international scoring, ability grouping, and advanced math in eighth grade -- produced more information, but more questions, regarding math education today.
First up, the report took at look at the ever-scrutinized international comparisons. An initial brush shows that, despite much anxiety, the news about math performance is generally fair: On the fourth-grade TIMSS exam, for instance, U.S. students generally scored slightly above average, and had a 23-point gain since 1995. But context mattersand the report also points out that many of the countries that have started using TIMSS in the last decade have largely been developing countries or countries that are just beginning to develop public education, making most comparisons apples and oranges. Surprising, it found that Finland, the darling of many in education, scored roughly the same as the United States on the TIMSS exam, though it greatly outpaced the U.S. on the PISA tests. It's doubtful this variance would reflect poorly on Finland, though -- if anything, Finnish admirers will likely view this as further proof that standardized tests are too subjective to be of much value.
The report mapped TIMSS results in certain states onto state NAEP results, and found that typically they correlated. A few states, like Massachusetts, scored much higher than the national average and was on par with the stiffer international competitors. Interestingly, the report was able to link states with stronger standards -- which were also more likely to be in line with the standards in the highest-performing countries -- to higher scores. As an earlier study also found that the Common Core State Standards align closely with the standards of some of the highest-performing states. Provided support for teachers is provided in the implementation of Common Core, this could mean big improvement for students in the United States.
Algebra in eighth grade, long a contentious issue, also merited a section of analysis. While states have mainly been successful in getting nearly more students to take algebra in eighth grade --47 percent of eighth graders nationally took algebra, up from 16 percent in 1990 -- but researchers couldn't find a link between increased enrollment in algebra and better performance on NAEP. Further, the analysis found evidence -- though could not establish causality -- that the influx of students taking algebra and pre-algebra has led to both those courses being watered down. This is further backed up by the latest NAEP transcript analysis, which found evidence of 'course inflation' in high school.
The report was an illuminating update, and touched on many trends that get heavy play in education debates. But ultimately, as with many things in the education sector, progress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.