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Harvard study: US 'middling, not stellar' in student achievement gains

Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance

How states rank in improving student acheivement

The United States is making only "middling, not stellar" gains in closing the international student achievement gap, says a new Harvard report.

States are not progressing evenly and school-reform efforts and increased education spending are not necessarily paying off, say the authors of “Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance.

Officials in several states called the study’s results a wake-up call.


Among key findings:

  • While 24 countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another 24 countries appear to be improving at a faster rate. U.S. progress is not sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.
  • U.S. test-score performance has improved annually at a rate of about 1.6 percent over 14 years but students in three countries -- Latvia, Chile, and Brazil -- improved at an annual rate of 4 percent, and students in another eight countries -- Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania -- gained at twice the rate of U.S. students. Gains made by students in those 11 countries are estimated to be at least two years’ worth of learning.
  • Student performance in nine countries -- Sweden, Bulgaria, Thailand, the Slovak and Czech Republics, Romania, Norway, Ireland, and France -- declined over the same 14-year time period
  • The top state improvements were seen in Maryland, followed by Florida and Delaware. Also among the top 10 states that outpaced the U.S. as a whole are Massachusetts, Louisiana, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia.
  • The slowest rate of improvement was in Iowa followed by Maine, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Nebraska. (Nine states that did not participate in early National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were left out of the Harvard study: Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington.)
  • In most states, a rising tide lifted all boats. States with the largest gains in average student performance also tend to see the greatest reduction in the percentage of students performing below the basic level.

Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance

Do you know as much as an eighth-grader?

The report warns that because rates of economic growth impact the future well-being of the nation, there is a simple message: "A country ignores the quality of its schools at its economic peril.”

Related: Chicago's big school deal: Longer days for kids, hundreds more teachers

In Iowa, a statement on the website for Linda Fandel, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s special assistant for education, said the Harvard study “is more evidence that Iowa must shake off complacency and build a consensus for how to give our students a globally competitive education.” The study also “should lend a sense of urgency” for discussions scheduled Aug. 3 on “how to better use the talents of outstanding educators to improve instructional practices and raise achievement”

Robert F. Bukaty / AP, file

Maine Gov. Paul LePage

In Maine, the study set off a controversy between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and educators.

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“Clearly, the status quo in education is not working,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “Test scores in Maine are stagnant while other states are making progress. In fact, while Maine spent $4,000 more per student from 1990 to 2009 -- well above the average for the states -- student achievement gains were the second worst in the country … Our public school system is failing and we are allowing it to happen.”

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The Maine School Management Association responded that LePage ignored “some facts on student achievement … most notably that students here are achieving well above the national average,” the Bangor Daily News reported. Maine eighth-graders rank among the nation’s top 10 states, and only five outscore Maine eighth-graders in science, the association said.

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