The basic assumption behind education reform in Indiana – the belief that drives high-stakes testing and accountability focused on students, teachers and schools – is that our public education system isn’t very good. Or at least that it isn’t what it ought to be.
But what if the assumption is wrong? Here’s some evidence that it is: Hoosier eighth-graders posted some of the world’s best scores in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared math and science achievement for students in 63 countries.
If Indiana were a country, it would have ranked with some of the world’s leaders.
The TIMSS results were analyzed in a policy brief produced in March by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University and written by David Rutkowski, Justin Wild and Leslie Rutkowski of the IU School of Education. But the report received almost no media attention.
“The only message we’re ever getting, and the impetus behind all this testing that we’re seeing, is that our schools are failing,” Leslie Rutkowski said last week. “We’re really not doing that badly.”
TIMSS measures how well students are learning an internationally accepted curriculum in math and science. It’s given every four years to students in fourth and eighth grades. The last round of testing was in 2011 –- significantly, before Indiana’s high-profile education reforms, including private-school vouchers, more charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations, took effect.
Indiana eighth-graders scored above the U.S. average and well above the international average in both math and science. In science, only five countries scored better than Indiana to an extent that was statistically significant. In math, only six countries scored statistically better than Hoosier eighth-graders.
Indiana even outscored Finland – the darling of international test-score comparisons – in math. It matched highly regarded Hong Kong in science. (Indiana was one of nine U.S. states that participated in TIMSS in 2011; three states had higher average scores than Indiana).
“The continued trend of performing above the national and world averages, as well as producing many high-level achieving students, is a testament to the quality of teaching that exists in the state of Indiana,” the CEEP report concludes. “Hoosier teachers should be praised for their efforts and encouraged to maintain our educationally competitive place in the global economy.”
The CEEP study – which Leslie and David Rutkowski discuss in an IU School of Education video — does note some grounds for improvement in Indiana, based on TIMSS results. The state has a gender gap, with boys scoring higher than girls in both math and science. And it lags in the number of students who score at the “advanced” or highest level on the tests.
Of course, we’re looking at average scores here, and averages can conceal individual differences. There’s no question that some students aren’t keeping up, and that some schools and districts struggle against the effects of poverty and other socio-economic factors. But the TIMSS results suggest pretty strongly that we don’t have a public education system that’s failing.