Minnesota students fare well in global comparison

Students try to figure out how a toy rover works
Students try to figure out how a toy rover works, as they prepare for their trip to Mars. The 'trip' is part of a weeklong program called STARBASE.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

This is the second time Minnesota has been measured as a country for the purposes of this test. That last time was 1995 - and scores back then were lower, much lower in some cases. Fourth graders were in the middle of the pack on the last math test.

But this time, only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and Japan scored better on fourth grade math.

"Minnesota's fourth graders, in particular, have moved from a very mediocre performance to a performance that borders on world class," according to Bill Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who analyzed Minnesota's TIMSS scores in both 1995 and this time.

A key factor was the fact that back then, there were no state standards for what Minnesota kids have to learn in math, he says. Now, there are.

Students watch a science experiment
Students crow around a machine that sucks air out of a cylinder and creates a vacuum. Here, a bag of shaving cream is about to explode. The kids are taking part in a weeklong program at Ft. Snelling called STARBASE.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"You didn't have them before in 1995. You have them now. Twelve years later your performance is that much stronger, and I think that says to the nation - who often wonder if there's a chance we can perform like those top-performing countries - I think the answer's yes."

There's been a big push at the state level to ramp up math and science education across the state. So much so, they now send kids to Mars.

Some 5th graders from Anderson Middle School in Minneapolis are hunched over a toy that looks like the Mars Rover. The kids have to figure out how rovers work and how to get them to the Red Planet.

It's part of a week-long program at Fort Snelling called STARBASE. The aim is to get youngsters jazzed for math and science by letting them play around with all this space stuff and accidentally learn some things.

In another room, they're learning about the vacuum of space, which is why there's a bag of shaving cream inside a cylinder that's connected to a machine that sucks out all the air.

MSU professor Bill Schmidt discusses the results
Michigan State University professor Bill Schmidt discusses the TIMSS test results for Minnesota during an event at the Science Museum in St. Paul Tuesday morning.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

As that happens, the shaving cream puffs up like cotton candy until...It bursts all over the inside of the container.

STARBASE's own research shows students start doing better in math and science when they return to their schools. The program gets public funding, but also gets some money from the business community, which also helped pay to get Minnesota included in the TIMSS test.

Charlie Weaver, who heads the Minnesota Business Partnership says it was important to get a global comparison.

"The Medtronics of the world, the 3M's of the world, the Cargill's of the world, the Targets of the world, the Best Buys, the Mayo Clinics - they're all competing globally. If we don't have kids, particularly in math and science, who can do the work for our great companies here, those companies will leave."

Aside from showing improvements in math, the TIMSS also showed science scores in 4th and 8th grades improved from 1995, but not by nearly as much. Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Minnesota's science scores were very good back then, and they're still among the best in the world.

GRAD test
Fourth graders performed especially well on the TIMSS math test, according to state offiicals.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

While state education officials are pleased, they caution that there's still plenty to do.

They point out that high schoolers weren't tested, and high school scores have traditionally lagged elementary in math and science. In fact, a new science test given last spring across Minnesota saw fewer than half of the nearly 200,000 kids get passing scores.

"We know we have a lot of work to do in the high school level," says Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who says she doesn't know what's causing the drop-off.

One of her hopes is that the current crop 4th and 8th graders will keep scoring well when they get to high school.

"I think as we change our standards and expectations, prepare our students and teachers for meeting those, we should see a turnaround. And I think we'll see much more engagement."

Fresh off Tuesday's announcement, a group called 'Minnesota 2020' released its own survey. It found a majority of science teachers who responded think the quality of science education has dropped in recent years. For one, they say class sizes are getting too big, and they blame a lack of state funding for that.

The Department of Education is bracing for a bad budget year, given the poor economic outlook. But regardless of funding, it's still going ahead with plans to update Minnesota's school science standards. A new draft of those standards is due out next week. By then, a certain group of kids at Fort Snelling will have returned from their trip to Mars.

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