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US eighth-graders do well on test, but states vary widely

WASHINGTON — Eighth-graders in more than half the US states did better than average on an international test in math and science, but the top students lagged behind South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, according to a study released by the US government Thursday.

In math, public school students in 36 states scored higher than average. The lowest scoring state was Alabama and the highest was Massachusetts. US students did better on the science test, with students in 47 states scoring higher than average. The District of Columbia was the lowest scoring US jurisdiction while Massachusetts was again the highest scorer.

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Still, while Massachusetts led the nation, only 19 percent of eighth-graders scored high enough to be considered advanced in math compared with nearly 50 percent of eighth-graders in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore.

“It’s a good news, bad news scenario,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Department of Education. “All of our high-performing states are being outperformed significantly by these other countries.”

The report gave new fuel to policymakers who have been arguing for 30 years that the United States has stalled in educational attainment and that K-12 schools need a reboot to produce adults who can compete in a global economy.

The analysis released Thursday used 2011 test scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMMS, an exam given by the United States and 46 foreign countries and provinces. Countries participating include developing economies such as Ghana and former Eastern bloc countries of Romania, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. India and China, frequently cited as economic competitors, were not among the test takers.

Since only nine states participated in 2011, researchers used data from a US test taken by students in all states — the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress — and projected how students from each state and the District of Columbia would have fared on the international test. It is the first time the government has tried to link the tests.

Jack Buckley, head of the National Center for Education Statistics, said state officials want to compare their students with foreign counterparts.

“A lot of governors, state chiefs are interested in seeing better data about how their kids match up,” Buckley said.

Mitchell Chester, the education commissioner in Massachusetts, said Wednesday that while he is proud of the achievement of students in his state, it is not enough.

“Not all our students are reaching these kinds of high levels of achievement that the aggregate represents,” said Chester, who chairs one of two consortia of states that are writing standardized tests for the new Common Core academic standards designed to improve math and reading instruction in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Massachusetts raised its state academic standards 1993, and now regularly leads the nation in test scores.

“For the nation, we’re evidence of what’s possible,” Chester said. “In many of our states, and as a nation, we should be doing better.”

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