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Mass. students excel on global examinations

15-year-olds top most other systems

Massachusetts, taking part for the first time in a prestigious yardstick of global student achievement, outscored most educational systems but trailed some Asian academic heavyweights, according to results being released Tuesday.

The best showing by Massachusetts 15-year-olds on the Program for International Student Assessment tests came in reading, where only three other participants scored higher: Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

In science, Massachusetts was topped by just six educational systems, including Finland and Estonia; and in math, Massachusetts trailed only nine participants, such as Korea, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.

Sixty-five educational systems — which include countries, cities, states or provinces — took the exam in fall 2012.


“We have a lot to be proud of in Massachusetts,” said Mitchell Chester, state commissioner for elementary and secondary education. “We have another marker showing our students perform better than most others in the world. But we still have room for improvement, particularly in math and science.”

Indeed, the gaps between Massachusetts and the highest-performing systems were quite wide. In math, Massachusetts scored 514 points, 99 points lower than Shanghai, the top scorer. In science, Massachusetts trailed Shanghai, the top scorer again, 527 points to 580 points on a 1,000-point scale.

The divide shows the challenges Massachusetts faces in developing a larger and more highly skilled workforce as the state competes globally to attract businesses in the sciences and emerging technologies.

Given every three years since 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, was developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which consists of educational leaders from industrialized countries. The exams attempt to measure how well 15-year-olds in public and private schools can apply their knowledge to solve problems.

A selected pool of students across the United States has participated in the tests for several years. But the 2012 results mark the first time any US states participated as their own entities. Massachusetts outscored the other two states that took part, Connecticut and Florida.


Massachusetts’ strong standing largely mirrored results on another big-name international test that the state has taken part in in the past few years: the Trends in International Math and Science Study. The TIMSS, which is administered to fourth- and eighth-graders every four years, focuses on testing knowledge of math and science, rather than the application of it.

“I am tremendously proud of our students for once again performing as global leaders in reading, math, and science,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement. “Education is the Commonwealth’s calling card around the world and central to our competitiveness in the global economy. We invest in education because we believe that it is the single most important investment government can make in our collective future.”

Matthew Malone, the state’s education secretary, echoed that sentiment.

“These results show that we are hard at work in preparing and training our students to fill high-demand positions in science, technology, engineering and math that have kept Massachusetts at the forefront of our global innovation-based economy,” Malone said in a statement.

Massachusetts decided to take part in the PISA to better gauge the performance of high school students on an international stage. About 1,700 students in 49 public schools across the state participated. Other schools may have taken the test as part of the national pool.

Students from various racial, ethnic, and income backgrounds were randomly selected. Massachusetts spent $600,000 administering the exam.


Chester said he hopes the state’s recent implementation of revised standards for math and science will help propel the state’s performance closer to that of Shanghai and Hong Kong in the coming years.

Across the country, the US results as a whole generated concern. The United States, which scored lower than Massachusetts, has been grappling with relatively flat scores in all three subject areas for several years, while some other countries have boosted their scores.

One of the problem areas was math, where the US score of 481 points was 13 points lower than the international average. In science and reading, US scores of 497 and 498 respectively, were not measurably different from the international average, making it a statistical tie.

The results also revealed gaps in achievement among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and students from low-income households tended to score lower on the exams than their more prosperous peers.

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the US performance “a picture of educational stagnation.”

“This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most-competitive workforce in the world,” Duncan said in a statement.

The American Federation of Teachers blamed the stagnation on an overemphasis on standardized testing.

“None of the top-tier countries, nor any of those that have made great leaps in student performance, like Poland and Germany, has a fixation on testing like the United States does,” Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, said in a statement.


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.