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Voices: International tests highlight achievement gap

Two education professors weigh in on why Coloradans need to continue to embrace school reform by modernizing the way schools are funded.

As Colorado enters the homestretch of its efforts to overhaul the state’s school funding system, the latest international tests results have been released and can inform Colorado’s efforts.

The results have a mix of very good and not-so-good news for Colorado. The recent tests, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), were administered by the widely respected International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Unlike the PISA tests of 15-year-olds that get lots of attention from policymakers, TIMSS tests students at specific grade levels (fourth and eighth for 2011). States can also choose to participate as if they were their own country, and Colorado wisely chose to do so for eighth-graders. The national results include both public and private school students, and the state results sample only public school students.

In mathematics, U.S eighth-graders performed respectably compared to the other participating countries, if not spectacularly: American fourth grade students had an average score just outside the top 10, similar to students in Russia, England and Finland (the darling of international education reform). American eighth grade students had an average score within the top 10, similar to students in Israel, England and, once again, Finland. U.S. performance at fourth grade has increased significantly on TIMSS from 1995 to 2007 and from 2007 to 2011, but eighth grade scores were relatively unchanged from 2007 after a substantial increase from 1995 to 2007.

The 2011 TIMSS results include a lot of good news for Colorado’s students and educators in public schools. Scored against the other participating countries, Colorado’s eighth-graders would have ranked well within the top 10 in mathematics, above the international and U.S. averages, and would have been outperformed only by the likes of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Russia. Notably, Colorado students had similar scores to students in Finland, a country whose education system is often fawned over by U.S. policymakers. Colorado students performed well in three of the four math content areas (number, geometry, and data and chance), and at the U.S. average in algebra.

In science, the results are not quite as good but still impressive. U.S. eighth-graders ranked 10th overall, with Colorado students scoring well above the U.S. and international averages – tied for seventh with Russia and similar to other high-scoring countries such as Slovenia, Finland and Hong Kong. Biology and earth science were particular Colorado strengths.

However, achievement gaps among Colorado students are a major area of concern.

In eight grade math, for example, white and Asian students and those attending low-poverty schools in Colorado performed well above the U.S. average, but black and Hispanic students scored well below the U.S. and international averages, on par with students in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Students in high-poverty schools in Colorado performed even less impressively, on par with students in Romania and Alabama.

It does not bode well for our future international competitiveness when some of our poor and minority students – comprising the fastest growing segments of the student population – are performing on par with students in countries and states without Colorado’s considerable material advantages.

Colorado has recently been a leader among the states regarding education, with the implementation of the student achievement growth model among the most important “exports.” Coloradans clearly understand the advantages of being at the cutting edge of reform, and state policymakers should continue this recent tradition of innovation as they modernize the school finance system.

Policymakers should keep in mind that Colorado’s public school system – like all such systems – has considerable strengths and weaknesses, and that reforms should be aimed at both promoting excellence and achieving educational equity. Choosing one over the other overlooks the fact that Colorado has made world-class progress but also has world-class problems.

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