Published: Dec. 9, 2008

MSU scholars help Minnesota become global leader in math

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949, Nicole Geary Education office: (517) 355-1826

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Minnesota’s fourth-grade math scores jumped from mediocre to world-class after the state established rigorous standards influenced by a team of Michigan State University scholars led by William Schmidt.


While the United States saw a small increase in fourth-grade math scores from 1995 to 2007 – remaining in the middle of the pack among the 16 countries that participated both years – Minnesota performed far better and now ranks fifth in the world, according to the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which was released today.


Schmidt, MSU Distinguished Professor of education and statistics, said Minnesota’s approach to success could be replicated by many other states attempting to boost math achievement. An architect of the TIMSS study, Schmidt worked closely with Minnesota education officials.


“Minnesota is now among the elite performers in the world,” he said. “It’s a story of, ‘Yes you can do it in the United States if you work at it.’”


The TIMSS study monitors math and science progress in fourth and eighth grades among countries around the world. About a dozen U.S. states have chosen to be evaluated in one or more years, although none has seen Minnesota’s level of success following the introduction of state standards, Schmidt said.


In 1995, Minnesota’s score in fourth-grade math was 516 – two points below the United States’ score of 518 and not far above the average international score of 500. Singapore led all countries – and states – with a score of 590. Minnesota did not have state math standards in1995.


In 2007, after introducing standards, Minnesota’s score had risen to 554, placing it behind only Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei and Japan. The U.S. score was 529.


“Minnesota had more than three times the gain indicated for the United States as a whole,” Schmidt said. “They have left the U.S. behind.”


Minnesota developed a set of rigorous, coherent and focused math standards for the first time in 1997 and then a revised version in 2003. The development of these standards was informed by the international benchmarking Schmidt and his colleagues developed in 1995. As a result, math instruction at the elementary level increased from about 30 minutes a day in 1995 to 60 minutes a day in 2007 and became more consistent across the state.


Fourth-grade teachers in Minnesota also reported devoting more time on computation with whole numbers, fractions, decimals and number patterns, which is the major focus of fourth-grade math internationally. As a result, they covered fewer nonessential topics and achieved greater focus and coherence.


In eighth-grade math, Minnesota’s gain was also greater than that of the United States as a whole. Minnesota’s eighth-grade teachers reported spending more than four times as much instructional time on algebra in 2007 than they did in 1995. Algebra is the major focus of eighth-grade math curriculum around the world.


Mike Lindstrom, executive director of the SciMathMN, which received a state grant to analyze the TIMSS data, said the work of Schmidt and his team has been crucial in Minnesota’s drive to become competitive internationally. SciMathMN is a nonprofit coalition that advocates quality K-12 science, math and technology education.


“Minnesota cannot afford to proceed in isolation; our students need to be competitive on a global scale and there are very few opportunities to receive the kind of feedback on that international perspective that TIMSS provides,” Lindstrom said.


In science, Minnesota maintained its position as one of the top performers, according to the 2007 study. The state ranked near the top of the global list in both 1995 and 2007, outperforming the United States as a whole in fourth- and eighth-grade science.


As in math, Minnesota did not have statewide standards in science in 1995. But Schmidt believes the state still excelled in science because a “fairly decent set of de facto standards” existed in the form of an informal network among science teachers.


“This adds credence to the argument that having a focused set of standards that are coherent and rigorous and getting teachers on the same page in terms of what should be covered is probably what really makes a difference,” Schmidt said.


“I believe we should set these standards more universally, that we should have common standards for all kids – in all 50 states and in all 15,000-plus school districts.”


For more on the TIMSS study, go to




Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.