Minnesota's students are faring well in math and science compared to their counterparts internationally, according to new test data released today.

According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Minnesota's students are significantly outperformed by only four participating countries in fourth-grade math, five countries in eighth-grade math, one country in fourth-grade science and four countries in eighth-grade science.

Minnesota is one of only two states in the U.S. -- the other being Massachusetts -- that participates in the study as its own "micro-nation," so its results can be compared internationally.

Since 1995, the first time Minnesota's students participated as their own group, the state has markedly improved its math performance -- especially in fourth-grade -- while several more countries have outperformed Minnesota in eighth-grade science.

"We can be proud that Minnesota students performed well compared to students from many nations," Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said in a statement. "The results of this international assessment confirm that we must continue with our efforts to increase academic rigor for students and professional development for educators in math and science."

The toughest competition is from Asia, with Singapore leading the world in science and Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei leading the charge in math.

SciMath Minnesota 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 U.S. 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.

A changing landscape

An analysis of the results by SciMath Minnesota pointed out some of what has changed in Minnesota math and science education since students took the 1995 test.

The state has implemented and revised standards in both science and math. School districts have increased the use of standards-based mathematics curriculum, and increased the time that students spend on the testing subject.

Graduation requirements in both math and science have also significantly increased.

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

The state did not outperform the U.S. in fourth-grade science in a statistically significant way.

"Minnesota has shown that rigorous academic standards are vital to student success," said Bill Schmidt, an education and statistics professor at Michigan State University who helped analyze Minnesota's results, in a news release.

Only part of the picture

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

While these results are promising, other recent results have been cause for concern.

State test results released in August showed that only about four out of 10 Minnesota students can be labeled "proficient" in science. Of the three grade levels given the new tests, about 39 percent of fifth-graders, 38 percent of eighth-graders and 43 percent of high school students did well enough on the Science MCA-II exam.

"The results are not, obviously, satisfactory to the state," Chas Anderson, deputy education commissioner, said at the time. "We want to see higher student achievement overall."

Educators statewide have also raised concern about the state's 11th-grade math test. Last spring, only one-third of Minnesota's juniors were found to be proficient on the test, part of which will be required for graduation for this year's juniors.

Both sets of results have raised a debate in the state's education community about whether Minnesota's students are really that deficient in math and science, or whether the state just has higher expectations for its students' performance in these areas that it once did.

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541