Friday, July 27, 2012

Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance

While 24 countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another 24 countries appear to be improving at a faster rate.

In a 2010 report, only 6 percent of U.S. students were found to be performing at the advanced level in mathematics, a percentage lower than those attained by 30 other countries. Nor is the problem limited to top-performing students. Only 32 percent of 8th-graders in the United States are proficient in mathematics, placing the United States 32nd when ranked among the participating international jurisdictions.

Although these facts are discouraging, the United States has made substantial additional financial commitments to K–12 education and introduced a variety of school reforms. Have these policies begun to help the United States close the international gap?

International Assessment Data

To find out the extent of U.S. progress toward closure of the international education gap, the authors of this report provide estimates of learning gains over the period between 1995 and 2009 for the United States and 48 other countries from much of the developed and some of the newly developing parts of the world. The authors also examine changes in student performance in 41 states within the United States between 1992 and 2011, allowing us to compare these states with each other.

Their findings come from assessments of performance in math, science, and reading of representative samples in particular political jurisdictions of students who at the time of testing were in 4th or 8th grade or were roughly ages 9–10 or 14–15.

The data come from one U.S. series of tests and three series of tests administered by international organizations. Using the equating method described in Appendix A, it is possible to link states’ performance on the U.S. tests to countries’ performance on the international tests, because representative samples of U.S. students have taken all four series of tests.

Overall Results

The gains within the United States have been middling, not stellar. While 24 countries trail the U.R. rate of improvement, another 24 countries appear to be improving at a faster rate. Nor is U.S. progress sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.

In the United States, test-score performance has improved annually at a rate of about 1.6 percent of a standard deviation (std. dev.). Over the 14 years, gains are estimated to be about 22 percent of a std. dev. or the equivalent of about a year’s worth of learning. By comparison, students in three countries—Latvia, Chile, and Brazil—improved at an annual rate of 4 percent of a std. dev., and students in another eight countries—Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania—were making gains at twice the rate of students in the United States. Gains made by students in these 11 countries are estimated to be at least two years’ worth of learning. Another 13 countries also appeared to be doing better than the U.S.

Student performance in nine countries declined over the same 14-year time period. Test-score declines were registered in Sweden, Bulgaria, Thailand, the Slovak and Czech Republics, Romania, Norway, Ireland, and France. The remaining 15 countries were showing rates of improvement that were somewhat lower than those of the United States.

iv. The four ongoing series are as follows: 1) National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered by the U.S. Department of Education; 2) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); 3) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA); and 4) Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), also administered by IEA.


Progress was far from uniform across the United States, however. Indeed, the variation across states was about as large as the variation among the countries of the world. Maryland won the gold medal by having the steepest overall growth trend. Coming close behind, Florida won the silver medal and Delaware the bronze. The other seven states that rank among the top-10 improvers, all of which outpaced the United States as a whole, are Massachusetts, Louisiana, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Virginia.

Iowa shows the slowest rate of improvement. The other four states whose gains were clearly less than those of the United States as a whole, ranked from the bottom, are Maine, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. Note, however, that because of nonparticipation in the early NAEP assessments, the authors cannot estimate an improvement trend for the 1992–2011 time period for nine states—Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington.

The states making the largest gains are improving at a rate two to three times the rate in states with the smallest gains. States that were further behind in 1992 tend to make larger gains than initially higher-performing states. However, their initial level of performance explains only about a quarter of the variation among the states. Also, variation in state increases in per-pupil expenditure is not significantly correlated with the variation in learning gains.

States with the largest gains in average student performance also tend to see the greatest reduction in the percentage of students performing below the basic level. They also are the ones that experience the largest percent shift of nonproficient students to the level of proficiency set by NAEP. However, there are some exceptions to this overall pattern. At the 8th-grade level, the gains by educationally disadvantaged students in Texas were larger relative to other states, given the percentage of nonproficient students who attained NAEP proficiency. Conversely, nonproficient students in Utah, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Maine, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were more likely (relative to other states) to cross the proficiency bar, given the gains being made by the most educationally disadvantaged students. Otherwise, an educational tide within a state that lifted an average boat lifted all boats fairly uniformly.