Minnesota's educators and business community have long stressed that the state's students need to be able to compete internationally when it comes to math and science. It seems they're doing just that. Minnesota's students have made considerable international progress in math during the past 12 years, and retained their spot near the top of the world in science, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released Tuesday.

The study, published by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, shows that Minnesota's students are outperformed by only four of 36 countries in fourth-grade math, five of 49 countries in eighth-grade math, one of 36 countries in fourth-grade science and four of 49 countries in eighth-grade science.

"I think we ought to have a party," said Ellen Delaney, associate principal at Spring Lake Park High School, and a former math teacher. "We made amazing gains, and this is reason for us to celebrate that our teachers stepped up to the plate."

Minnesota was one of two states -- the other being Massachusetts -- that participated in the 2007 study as a "micro-nation," so its results can be compared internationally.

The most encouraging results to educators are the fourth-grade math scores. Minnesota's fourth-graders improved their performance at more than three times the rate of the entire United States.

"Those are really quite stunning and impressive gains," said Mike Cohen, a former assistant secretary of education and the president of Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based education reform group.

Minnesota educators say the math gains are due to dramatic increases in time spent on math instruction and new, rigorous state math standards that are based on international standards of what kids should be taught.

Minnesota's toughest competition comes from Asia, with Singapore leading the world in science and Hong Kong and Taiwan leading the charge in math.

"We know that our children are going to be competing in a global economy," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. "We want our students well prepared."

Improving standards

When Minnesota's students first participated in the international test in 1995, the fact that they performed well in science and not so hot in math was a "wake-up call" to math teachers statewide, Delaney said.

"I can remember the science teachers celebrating, and every math teacher in the place was depressed," she said.

The reason, educators speculated at the time, is that even though Minnesota had no math or science standards, science teachers in the state had developed a strong informal network that essentially functioned as statewide standards for what should be taught.

That didn't exist in math.

"At the time, you could go from middle school to middle school and ask them what they're teaching in seventh-grade science and almost to a district they'd say life science," Delaney said. "In math, we've always done the reverse. We've done seemingly hundreds of topics a year and we didn't go deeply into anything."

SciMath MN helped examine Minnesota's performance on the 2007 tests. It also found:

• Minnesota's fourth-grade performance gain in math was among the largest of any of the 16 countries that participated in both the 1995 and 2007 TIMSS.

• In both fourth- and eighth-grade science, there was no significant change in how students performed in 2007 compared to 1995.

The United States as a whole was significantly outperformed by eight participating countries in fourth-grade math, five countries in eighth-grade math, four countries in fourth-grade science and nine countries in eighth-grade science.

Minnesota's fourth- and eighth-grade math students significantly outperformed the entire United States, as they also did in eighth-grade science.

Only part of the picture

These results are just one more piece in a complex jigsaw puzzle of tests analyzing how Minnesota's students fare in school.

Minnesota 2020, a St. Paul think tank, also released survey results Tuesday showing that 65 percent of Minnesota science teachers feel the quality of science education has worsened in the past five years.

And while the international test results are promising, other recent results have been cause for concern.

State test results released in August showed that only about four of 10 Minnesota students can be labeled "proficient" in science. And educators statewide have been concerned about the state 11th-grade math test, where only one-third of students were deemed proficient last spring.

Since the international study didn't analyze Minnesota's high school students, the difference between 11th-grade state and international results is a bit of a mystery, they say.

But it goes to show that the state expects a lot of its students, said Mike Lindstrom, executive director of SciMath MN.

"It appears as if we're coming much closer to the same focus that the internationally top-scoring nations have," he said. "I would say that it looks like our grade 11 [math] test could even be more rigorous than the international standards."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541