Maybe it’s time to stop the steady stream of handwringing over how poorly America’s schoolkids, 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 (TIMS), an exam given by some states and 46 other countries and provinces. The 2011 results, latest available, were released this fall.
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 kids trail those in Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Russia and Finland, but they are above average and ahead of 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 kids 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 kids 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 schoolkids attend non-public schools, where tuition can range above $30,000.
Meanwhile, all kids in the other countries using the TIMS tests actually take them. So California’s score of 493 on TIMS, compared with an international average of 500, is misleading for sure.
Meanwhile, the profusion of English learners in California, almost all children of parents who can’t afford private school tuition, drags California scores down. These are not dumb kids, but studies have shown 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 kids taking the TIMS-related tests speak a language other than English at home. State Department of Education figures from 2011, the year of the TIMS comparisons: 23.2 percent of California public school students were classified as English learners and 37.4 percent spoke a language other than English at home.
Considering which students are skimmed from the top before California kids 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’ kids 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.