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'A-Plus' Countries Falter on International Math Study

Ongoing overhauls of state mathematics standards are intended in part to prepare American students to compete with their international peers. Yet a new analysis of the most recent Trends in International Math and Science Study suggests that so-called "A-plus countries"— whose math achievement in 1995 prompted American educators to take a page from their standards in developing the Common Core State Standards in math—have not sustained that achievement in more recent exams, and that better examples of academic leaders might be found closer to home.

The analysis, "The Latest TIMSS and PIRLS Scores," was released this week as part of an annual report on education by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, which also looked at 8th grade advanced math courses and ability grouping and tracking issues in reading and math.

Brookings senior fellow Tom Loveless studied recent TIMSS performance from 2003 to 2011 of six countries which had been tapped as educational leaders in math performance in 1995: Singapore, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Belgium, and the Czech Republic. The test is given every four years, with an average international score of 500, and an average U.S. score in 2011 of 541 in 4th grade and 509 in 8th grade, squarely in the middle of the pack.

Among the former A-plus countries, Loveless found a very mixed bag of recent achievement. Belgium stopped participating in 8th grade TIMSS math after a 13-point drop in average math scores in 2003, and the Czech Republic also dropped out after a jaw-dropping 42-point decline in 2007. The remaining countries took part in TIMSS in 8th grade in 2011, and all but Japan saw improvements in their average math scores.

However, only Korea's 4th graders had greater math growth since 1995—32 points, from 581 to 613—than that of American 4th graders, whose average math score improved 23 points since 1995, to 541. American 8th graders also improved 17 points from 1995 to 2007, matching the growth of Hong Kong and surpassed only by that of Korea.

Moreover, in the same period, individual states have also shown dramatic growth in 4th grade math performance on TIMSS: Massachusetts 8th graders scored on average 561 in 2011, up 47 points since 1999. Massachusetts, Minnesota, and North Carolina all had double-digit growth in math and higher average scores in 2011 than the most recent performance of Belgium and the Czech Republic.

In an interview about the report, Loveless said the A-plus countries math curricula have been "held up as ideals" and domestic efforts such as the common core have been compared against those countries' standards. Yet, "The fact that three of the A-plus counties had statistically significant declines, I think is interesting," he said.

"The tendency is for observers, when test scores are released, to zero on on the top performers, to ask what it is that the leading nations are doing, and then to urge the rest of the world to do those things," Loveless wrote in the report. "That response is understandable—but it is also potentially misleading."
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