BOSTON -- Polish up your best "wicked smaht" accents: Massachusetts finished first among U.S. states in a study comparing the academic performance of American students with others around the globe.
Nineteen percent of Massachusetts eighth-graders reached an advanced benchmark in mathematics on the 2011 tests while 24 percent reached an advanced level in science.
But Massachusetts students still lagged behind students in some other countries. About half the students from Chinese Taipei, the Republic of Korea and Singapore reached the advanced benchmark in math, and 40 percent of students in Singapore reached that benchmark in science.
The study compared all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Department of Defense Schools to 38 countries who participated in the Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and nine other participating subnational education systems.
Massachusetts was one of nine states where students actually took the TIMSS tests. Students in the other 43 U.S. states didn't participate in the TIMSS test, but their scores were predicted based on their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.
Chester Mitchell, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts, said the state has "set a high bar" for expectations on student performance in its own standardized tests, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).
"It's been well-documented that the benchmarks we've set on our tests are higher than those in virtually every other state," Mitchell said. "Our teachers are used to aiming at a high target."
Nearly 2,100 students from 56 public schools in Massachusetts took the TIMSS tests in 2011.
Overall, eighth-graders in 36 states performed above the math and science averages on the test. Massachusetts was the only state whose average score reached the high benchmark in math. Massachusetts led the states in science scores as well but was only slightly ahead of Vermont.
The strong performance by Massachusetts students, while laudable, is not surprising, said Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Boston-based national group that works to improve standardized tests.
Neill said Massachusetts often performs well in international education studies, in part because it has a high rate of educated parents and a fairly low percentage of kids in poverty.
"The primary determinant of test scores seems largely to be poverty and issues such as racial segregation or English language learners," he said.
Neill said the state needs to do more to help schools in low-income communities. "Urban schools have higher teacher turnover; they don't have the resources to overcome the consequences of poverty," Neill said.