Maybe it’s time to stop the steady stream of hand-wringing over how poorly America’s schoolchildren, and California’s in particular, perform in subjects like math and science and realize they are actually doing OK, even if there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
That’s the takeaway from 2011 test scores in the Trends in International Math and Science Study, an exam given by some states and 46 other countries and provinces. The 2011 results, latest available, were released earlier this fall. Because only nine states administered the actual Trends in International Math and Science Study tests, researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics (www.nces.ed.gov/timss/) used data from other tests to compare.
They show American public school students have some way to go in catching up with students in several other countries, but are far ahead of students in many others. Yes, American children trail those in Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Russia and Finland, but they are above average and ahead of their counterparts in England, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden and Thailand, to name just a few.
California public schoolers are just a tad behind the American average, trailing England and New Zealand, but ahead of Sweden, Norway, Ukraine, Turkey and Chile, to name a few, on the tests given to children in the fourth and eighth grades.
Two factors make the California scores seem lower than they probably should: The huge number of English learners in this state’s schools and the large percentage of California children attending private and parochial schools.
English learners are at a disadvantage when taking tests administered in English – and 23.2 percent of California public school students in 2011 were English learners – while many nonpublic schools don’t bother with some standardized tests, often administering only the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.
Fully 8.7 percent of all California schoolchildren attend nonpublic schools, where tuition can range above $30,000. That means results of the state’s standardized testing often don’t include the children of the state’s wealthiest and best-educated adults. This skews average test scores downward sharply, even if no one can say exactly how much.
Meanwhile, all children in the other countries using the Trends in International Math and Science Study tests actually take them. So California’s score of 493 on the tests, compared with an international average of 500, is misleading for sure. It leaves out children who will go on to found businesses like Google and the Internet real estate firm Zillow, for just two examples of international companies founded by people who attended private elementary or high schools in California.
Meanwhile, the profusion of English learners in California public schools, almost all children of parents who can’t come close to affording private school tuition, drags California scores down. These are not dumb children, but studies have shown repeatedly that children taking time-limited tests are at a disadvantage if the tests are administered in languages other than what they speak at home.
More than one-third of California children taking the Trends in International Math and Science Study-related tests speak a language other than English at home. State Department of Education figures from 2011, the year of the Trends in International Math and Science Study comparisons: 1.44 million California public school students were classified as English learners (23.2 percent of all pupils) and 2.36 million spoke a language other than English at home (37.4 percent of all pupils).
Considering which students are skimmed from the top before California children even take these tests, while many thousands of others are at a great disadvantage, the California scores don’t look so bad.
Yes, they trail the numbers from Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, Colorado and Connecticut, to name a few high-performing states that score well above the worldwide average, but those places have nowhere near as many English learners as California.
Meanwhile, states with almost as high a percentage of English learners – like Texas – scored below California.
All of which suggests that California public schools are doing some things right – to get a student populace with high proportions of immigrants’ children who are not up to par in English performing almost at the international average is no mean feat.
At the same time, there’s plenty of work to do: Those English learners must be brought up to speed as quickly as possible so they can compete for jobs when they emerge from school. But none of this suggests an academic doomsday is approaching, as many detractors of public education often imply.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.