Minnesota students succeed in international spotlight

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However, signs point to looming math and science crises

Good news for Minnesota educators: Your efforts are not in vain. Minnesota students are among the best in the world in science and math.

When graded against students across the globe, Minnesota ranks behind only five countries in math and six countries in science. They convincingly outperform the United States average.

The information comes from the American Institutes for Research. The author, Gary Phillips, compared 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in eighth-grade math and 2005 NAEP scores in eighth grade science with the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Phillips said these tests are comparable, although the match is not perfect.

Forty three percent of Minnesota math students scored at or above proficient. In the world, only Singapore (73 percent), Hong Kong (66), Republic of Korea (65), Taipei (61) and Japan (57) scored better. The U.S. average was 31 percent. Countries with scores similar to Minnesota’s were Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary and Estonia.

Thirty nine percent of Minnesota students performed well on the science test. Countries that outperformed Minnesota were Singapore (55 percent), Taipei (52), Republic of Korea (45), Hong Kong (44), Japan (42) and Estonia (41). The U.S. average was 27 percent. Countries with scores similar to Minnesota’s were England, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia.

Phillips noted that the results are good, but they show an urgent need for more and better math and science education. The highest performing countries were the same ones that grant the largest proportion of college degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

According to the General Accounting Office, postsecondary education enrollment in the U.S. has increased over the past decade, but the percentage of students obtaining degrees in STEM fields has declined. Only 16 percent of all postsecondary degrees in the United States are STEM-related, and many of these are awarded to foreign students, Phillips wrote.

The United States has one of the lowest proportions of STEM degrees awarded among the countries in the study (16 percent). The race to prepare students for high-tech jobs is being won by China (52 percent), Japan (64) and South Korea (40). Furthermore, even though the United States has a high rate of postsecondary education attainment, it still ranks below Japan and China in the absolute number of STEM degrees awarded.

Minnesota’s STEM program encourages students to get the education necessary for a career in technology. Such a program is laudable, but it takes a large cadre of science and math teachers to reach that goal.

As illustrated in the MN 2020 report Growing Gap, the state’s superintendents have said there is an “extreme shortage” of science and math teachers. The number of initial teaching licenses in these subjects has been static or has declined. The talent pool is so low that rural schools often have difficulty finding anyone to teach these subjects. They often fall back on alternative licenses that allow non-teachers in the classroom. There are many programs to attract students to become science and math teachers, but they have not born fruit.

New teachers are only part of the problem. In addition to needing more and better scientists and mathematicians, the United States needs to increase the level of competency in these areas, Phillips said.

“Large societal issues such as global warming, deforestation, use of fossil fuels, population growth, ozone depletion, rising obesity rates and pandemic virus infections can only be addressed when enough people in the general population understand the science underlying these problems,” Phillips wrote.

He offered these nuggets from the National Science Foundation:

* Two-thirds do not understand DNA, “margin of error,” the scientific process, and do not believe in evolution.

* Half do not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun, and a quarter does not know that the earth goes around the sun.

* Half think humans coexisted with dinosaurs and believe antibiotics kill viruses.

* Eighty-eight percent believe in alternative medicine.

* Half believe in extrasensory perception and faith healing.

* Forty percent believe in haunted houses and demonic possession.

* One third believes in lucky numbers, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and UFOs.

* One quarter believes in witches and that we can communicate with the dead.

The average citizen is also not very literate in mathematics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics:

* Seventy-eight percent cannot explain how to compute the interest paid on a loan.

* Seventy-one percent cannot calculate miles per gallon on a trip.

* Fifty-eight percent cannot calculate a 10 percent tip for a lunch bill.

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