Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mixed messages

I was pondering the disconnect between two very recent "news items". On the one hand, everyone is gushing about the improvements in math scores on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. I'm reading about it everywhere, it seems. On the other hand, the U.S. is sitting out the Advanced TIMSS which is designed to show how our advanced students compare to those in other countries. Strangely enough, I'm NOT reading about that everywhere.

It seems we've managed to raise the floor (every so slightly) while letting the ceiling come crashing down. I guess that puts "good enough" somewhere near the bottom. Apparently, the goal is mediocrity. Based on those parameters, I'd say we're right on track.

Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math.

1 comment:

Patsy Wang-Iverson said...

The reason you are not reading about the U.S. non-participation in TIMSS advanced 2008 is becaue the USED didn't call press conferences to announce the fact.

Another article about TIMSS Advanced is published in Science:
Science 28 September 2007:
Vol. 317. no. 5846, p. 1851
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5846.1851
Prev | Table of Contents | Next
News Focus
U.S. Says No to Next Global Test of Advanced Math, Science Students
Jeffrey Mervis

After U.S. high school students did poorly on TIMSS in 1995, the
government has decided not to participate in another version to be
given next year

In 1995, the United States lagged behind most of the world on a test
of advanced mathematics and physics taken by graduating high school
students from 16 countries. That won't happen again, if the Bush
Administration has its way: It has decided not to participate in the
next version of the test.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S.
Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), says
it is bowing out of 2008 TIMSSA, an advanced version of the Trends in
International Mathematics and Science Study given quadrennially to
younger students, because it can't fit the $5 million to $10 million
price tag into its flat budget. Officials also question whether the
target cohort--students finishing secondary school who have taken
advanced mathematics and physics courses--is comparable around the

But many leaders in the mathematics community believe that the
Administration opted out because it feared another poor U.S.
performance would reflect badly on its signature education program,
the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. While advocates of the test look
for other sources of funding, Science has learned that the National
Board for Education Sciences, which advises IES, will ask for a review
of the decision next month.

International tests have proliferated in recent years as countries
seek ways to measure how well they are preparing students for jobs in
a global economy. And although fourth- and eighth-grade U.S. students
have performed adequately on the TIMMS [sic] tests, high school
seniors have not. In 1995, the last time that cohort was measured,
U.S. students topped only Austria in advanced math and ranked dead
last in physics.

Planning for 2008 TIMSS-A began in 2006 at the urging of Norway and
Sweden. Although 16 countries participated in the first test, only
nine--the two proponents plus Russia, Italy, the Netherlands,
Slovenia, Iran, Lebanon, and Armenia--have ponied up for the new test,
which covers geometry, algebra, and calculus as well as mechanics,
electricity and magnetism, heat and temperature, and atomic and
nuclear physics. Sometime last year, NCES quietly decided not to get
involved, and since then Australia, Germany, and Finland have also
dropped out.

Leaders from the U.S. mathematical community, including the National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Mathematical
Society, are up in arms at the department's decision, first reported
last month by the newspaper Education Week. They argue that this elite
group of students needs to be monitored because they are most likely
to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)
fields in college and become the next generation of scientists and
engineers. "It's inconceivable to me that the government wouldn't fund
our participation," says Stanford mathematician R. James Milgram, a
member of the IES advisory board that expects to take up the issue at
its 30 to 31 October meeting. "The 1995 test was extremely important
in showing that a problem exists," he notes. "And the only way to know
if we're beginning to turn things around is by looking at new data to
see if we've made any progress."

n defending their decision, NCES officials note that they are already
supporting international assessments such as the regular 2007 TIMSS
for fourth and eighth graders, a fourth-grade reading exam, a math and
science assessment of 15-year-olds, and a planned survey of adult
literacy. They say that U.S. students may be at a disadvantage because
some TIMSS-A test-takers from other countries are older and may have
specialized in math and science during the latter part of their
secondary school years. In addition, says NCES associate commissioner
Valerie Plisko, whose office manages the various international
assessments, "we typically do not benchmark against these countries."

But those explanations don't pass muster with critics. TIMSS-A "is not
just a horse race," responds Patsy Wang-Iverson, coordinator of the
group advocating U.S. participation and also vice president of the
Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,
which supports mathematics education. She says there is much that U.S.
educators can learn from looking more closely at this population. "A
lot has changed since 1995," she says. "Students are taking more math
and science and more AP [advanced placement] courses, and TIMSS-A
provides us with a wonderful opportunity to evaluate their
performance. If we don't do it now, we'll lose track of an entire
generation of reform efforts."

After NCES bowed out, officials at the National Science Foundation
(NSF) asked the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New
Jersey, to propose how it would administer TIMSS-A. ETS's approach
also would have laid the foundation for a longitudinal study of these
advanced math and science students. But this summer, NSF officials
declined to fund the proposal after reviewers raised questions about
the target population and ETS's ability to improve on the
disappointingly low levels of U.S. participation in the 1995 test.
"We'd have to do more work to resolve those issues," admits ETS's
Michael Nettles.

Michael Martin, co-director of the Boston College-based center that
manages the international TIMMS-A [sic] assessment, says the group is
on schedule to administer TIMMS-A [sic] next spring in participating
countries and report the results by the end of 2009. Any change of
heart by U.S. officials, he adds, won't alter that time frame. "We are
sad that the United States won't be participating," Martin says. "But
at some point the ship must sail."