NJ Students Surpass Many Countries in Ranking of Test Scores Across World

Leslie Brody | The Record

New Jersey eighth-graders fared well in math and science in the first federal study to rank the state against competitors abroad — but its performance still trailed behind the top-scoring Asian education systems.

Eighth-graders Stephanie Luna, Brandon Barroso and Janelle Ortiz of Midland School in Rochelle Park measuring water temperature as part of an experiment.
Eighth-graders Stephanie Luna, Brandon Barroso and Janelle Ortiz of Midland School in Rochelle Park measuring water temperature as part of an experiment.
Midland School science teacher Elaine Rainone working with her eighth-graders.
Midland School science teacher Elaine Rainone working with her eighth-graders.

South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan took the highest spots in math. The projected average score for public school students in New Jersey (545 out of 1,000 points) brought the Garden State in at No. 9, following Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota. That’s above Russia, Israel and Finland, often seen as a model for school reform.

Average scores in science followed a similar pattern: New Jersey ranked No. 14 in the study, which compared all 50 states, 38 countries and nine smaller systems abroad, such as several provinces in Canada. These scores are based on complex projections using two long-established tests.

The report was the first to link scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — widely seen as the “gold standard” in comparing states — to a global test known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study from 2011.

Researchers said they embarked on the project because so many governors and lawmakers clamored for evidence on how their students stacked up against competitors worldwide.

“It’s a good news, bad news scenario” for New Jersey, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which released the report today. “Students in New Jersey are doing very well compared to many counterparts in the U.S. but still have some room to go when we look at the very highest-performing” systems abroad. The details bolster his point. In South Korea, Singapore and Taipei, for example, nearly 50 percent of eighth-graders scored as “advanced,” while only 16 percent of New Jersey students did that well.

Rankings of countries often ignite a round of hand-wringing about America’s ability to thrive in a tough global marketplace, along with a backlash from those who argue American schools deserve applause overall, despite pockets of failure. “People with a particular agenda will seize on one dimension of the story that supports their case,” Buckley said.

The new study involves many projections. Testing is so expensive that students in only nine states took the international test. All states participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Scores from students who took both tests were used to extrapolate how peers in New Jersey and other states would fare on the international test. Several researchers who were not part of the “linking” study said this methodology was valid as long as results were seen as estimates.

Some researchers say such rankings often reflect the socioeconomic status of the students being tested more than a school system’s quality. But others point to many factors at play in achievement, including teacher training, cultural respect for the teaching profession, curriculum, hours spent studying and parental expectations.

“We are much more diverse than most countries in the world and very open to immigration compared to other countries,” said Tom Loveless, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “Those factors do depress scores. On the other hand, it is still excuse-making. We can do better, and that’s what we should focus on.”

Loveless said the top-scoring Asian countries emphasize perseverance in math and science. He cited one study that tracked how Chinese, Japanese and American parents reacted when they saw their children botch a math problem. American parents typically said, “He’s never been good in math,” while the Asian parents tended to respond, “My kid has to work harder.”

“Parents in these high-scoring nations have a view that it takes hard work to learn and it’s a very difficult subject,” he said.

Elaine Rainone, an eighth-grade science teacher at Rochelle Park’s Midland School, echoed his view. She was “extremely disappointed” to find that only half of the 28 students in one class met the deadline for an easy homework assignment converting a recipe to metric units. “Some of our students need to understand that home is an extension of the school day,” she said. “It doesn’t end at 2:45 p.m.”

To the disappointment of the new report’s researchers, two major economic powerhouses, India and China, didn’t participate. The organization overseeing the project said it required all countries involved to follow strict rules on data collection and test security, and monitored some data-gathering sessions to ensure compliance.

Winners of international rankings differ depending on the group of countries involved and the specific test. Finland, for example, is famous for scoring well on one for 15-year-olds called the Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures reasoning skills and real world problem-solving. Finland did not do quite as well on the international test used in today’s report, which is more tied to curriculum and tries to check what children learn in class. Critics of tests in general stress they don’t capture creativity, grit and other aptitudes important to long-term success.

Andreas Schleicher, an expert in international comparisons, has found that students tend to perform well in systems that attract great people to the teaching profession, then give them ongoing professional development, autonomy and time to prepare lessons.

Wide scoring range

Today’s report found a wide range among American states, from Massachusetts (with an average score of 561) in math to Alabama (466). Thirty-six states scored higher than the international average in math; 47 did so in science. The international average score for both math and science was 500.

To Grant Wiggins, an educational consultant in Hopewell, the study highlights disparities in school quality across the country. “It’s not that our good schools aren’t good; it’s that the variability of schools is wider than in other places,” Wiggins said. “Because of local control, because teachers work in isolation, because until recently there was no national framework — there is wide variability teacher to teacher, school to school, and district to district. … That doesn’t happen in a place like Singapore. They have more quality assurance.”

“International comparisons have to be taken with a lot of qualifiers,” he added, “but it’s a wake-up call.”

This study comes at a time of intense efforts to improve education in New Jersey, which is rolling out new teacher evaluations, new online state tests and a new set of voluntary national standards called the Common Core, which spells out what children should master in each grade.

Christopher Nagy, superintendent of Northern Valley Regional School District, said the confluence of changes was “extremely burdensome and placing tremendous pressure on districts.”

“On the flip side of the coin,” he added, “once we work through all these issues, with hopefully some additional funding to manage all of these initiatives, I think we will be in a better position” to help students compete.

New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said the report underscored the need to close achievement gaps, which leave too many disadvantaged children unprepared.

“New Jersey students, on the whole, are strong performers when compared to students from other states,” he stated by email. “That’s good news, for which we owe our educators a huge debt of gratitude. However, today’s students will compete in a global, knowledge-centered economy in which all children will need to graduate truly ready for college and career if they are going to have a fair shot at success in life.”

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