Cover of the Nation's Report Card reportEvery two years, the Nation’s Report Card test results come out and remind us how much better most American students should be doing in math (and reading, but I'm going to focus just on math here). The press release accompanying this year’s results, announced just a few hours ago by the Department of Education, emphasizes that “the nation’s fourth and eight graders continued their steady upward trend in mathematics achievement in 2011.” Students in each grade scored one point higher than in 2009. Break out the champagne!

Seriously, it is significant that fourth graders scored 28 points higher this year than in 1990 and that eighth graders scored 21 points higher than in 1990. Clearly, we’re doing something right. But it’s still startling to read the overall statistics that only 40 percent of 4th graders and, even more alarmingly, 35 percent of 8th graders are considered “proficient” in math. I called Bill Schmidt, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University and an expert on math education and math assessments, to get his reaction to the latest results. [For a broader analysis of the results, see my colleague John Matson's news story here.]

Me: How significant is this 1 point increase in scores, given the fact that a majority of students still get very low grades on this test?

Schmidt: There clearly is an upward trend, and we should applaud that kind of improvement, though it does seem to have flattened out a bit.

But I think the key which people tend to ignore is that just a small percentage are considered proficient, and that’s not changed that much over this set of years. You’re talking about a third of our kids being proficient, not advanced, just proficient, and that’s strikingly bad news.


Me: What percentage of students should be testing at or above proficiency?

Schmidt: It should be at around 70 percent.

Me: It jumped out at me this year that Massachusetts and Minnesota do strikingly well on these tests. Massachusetts students earned the highest overall scores, and more than half were at or above proficiency. In Minnesotta, 53 percent of fourth graders and 48 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficiency. In 2007, both these states were measured against foreign countries in math and science, and they did well: Massachusetts’s fourth graders scored behind only two jurisdictions in math (Hong Kong and Singapore) and behind only Singapore in science. Minnesota’s scores were only slightly lower. What are these states doing right?

Schmidt: I can speak most directly to the Minnesota story, but in both cases I really believe it’s the curriculum. That’s not the only factor, of course, but Minnesota worked hard at its state standards. They have very coherent, focused and rigorous standards. Those are things we worked with them on. Those came into place in 2003. Their teachers then changed what they were covering as a result. They began to teach to more rigorous and coherent standards. It got to be a major aspect of why they improved. Massachusetts, too.

Me: How do Minnesota's and Massachusetts’s standards compare with the Common Core Standards that most states have now adopted and plan to implement by 2014?

Schmidt: They are as demanding as Minnesota’s and Massachusetts’s, if not better and more so.

The most crucial aspect of all right now is to make sure these new Common Core Standards are implemented. I mean we really have the chance to do this in these states. That’s the good news in my mind. If we deal with this correctly, we can give our kids the best chance they’ve had in the last 50 or 100 years at a world class education in mathematics.


Image Credit: © Bill Denison Photography; U.S. Department of Education