Or so Ripley said: Was Minnesota number two when it came to the teaching of math?
That’s what Amanda Ripley says in her widely praised book, The Smartest Kids in the World. When it came to the teaching of math, Minnesota was our second-best state.
And not only that! The inspiring state had made remarkable improvement over a twelve-year time span. Once again, we’ll be working from this basic text:
RIPLEY (page 72): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.Ripley seems to make these statements:
When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.
In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.
What was Minnesota doing that other states were not?
As of (roughly) 2007, Minnesota was second only to Massachusetts in the teaching of math. According to a major international math test, the state had made remarkable improvement over a twelve-year period.
According to Ripley, Minnesota was doing something that other states were not.
Those claims are very hard to support. To the extent that they’re technically accurate, they’re highly misleading. Here’s why:
Start with Minnesota and Massachusetts. In Ripley’s text, she doesn’t cite a basis for saying that Minnesota trailed only Massachusetts in math proficiency.
In her endnotes, Ripley cites this perfectly valid study by a team of professors. If you scroll to pages 8-9, you’ll see the graphic which is her source.
Among the fifty states, that graphic does show Minnesota ranking below only Massachusetts in the percentage of kids achieving math proficiency. The graphic does include other nations, including the ones Ripley names.
Here’s the rest of the story:
As the text of the study explains, the rankings of the fifty states on that graphic are actually based on their scores in Grade 8 math on the 2007 NAEP. We’re no longer dealing with the TIMSS. We’re now dealing with the NAEP, our major domestic testing program.
On the 2007 Grade 8 NAEP, Minnesota did have the second highest percentage of kids scoring proficient or better among the fifty states. But there’s no mystery about how Minnesota did that:
In large part, Minnesota achieved that ranking because it had lots of white kids.
More specifically, Minnesota had a higher percentage of white kids than other states which actually got better scores, once we disaggregate. Minnesota ranked above those states because it was heavily white.
Consider the way Minnesota compared to Texas on that year’s NAEP math test. Below, you see the way the two states’ average scores break down, once you disaggregate.
Note: On the NAEP scale, ten points is often said to be roughly equal to one academic year. For all NAEP data, start here:
2007 NAEP, Grade 8 math, Minnesota v TexasAmong all three major student groups, Texas outscored Minnesota. Minnesota ranked higher than Texas on the graphic Ripley cites because it had a much higher percentage of white kids.
White students: Texas 300, Minnesota 297
Black students: Texas 271, Minnesota 260
Hispanic students: Texas 277, Minnesota 269
To quote Ripley, “What was Minnesota doing that [Texas] was not?” Simple! It was teaching many more white kids! But then, the same pattern obtains when we compare Minnesota to Maryland and New Jersey:
2007 NAEP, Grade 8 math, Minnesota v MarylandMassachusetts also outscored Minnesota among all three student groups.
White students: Maryland 300, Minnesota 297
Black students: Maryland 265, Minnesota 260
Hispanic students: Maryland 272, Minnesota 269
2007 NAEP, Grade 8 math, Minnesota v New Jersey
White students: New Jersey 298, Minnesota 297
Black students: New Jersey 264, Minnesota 260
Hispanic students: New Jersey 271, Minnesota 269
We don’t mean this as a slander against Minnesota, which actually is one of our higher-scoring states. It simply wasn’t the second best state when it came to the teaching of math.
In these charts, Minnesota is being outscored among all major groups by several other high-scoring states. Minnesota only ranked second on Ripley’s graphic because it had a higher percentage of white students than most of these other states did.
Let’s be clear: Minnesota wasn’t even the second best state when it came to teaching math to white kids. Again, we don’t mean this as a criticism. But Minnesota’s white students only ranked fifth among the fifty states on that year’s Grade 8 NAEP.
Fifth out of fifty is pretty darn good! But it’s nothing like what Ripley seemed to suggest:
Grade 8 math, 2007 NAEP, white studentsFifth out of fifty wasn’t half bad! Unfortunately, Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students ranked less well that year. Or don’t we care about them?
New Jersey 298
North Dakota 295
North Carolina 295
United States 290
Grade 8 math, 2007 NAEP, black studentsMinnesota’s black students ranked 17th out of 41 states which had a sufficient sample of students. The state’s Hispanic students ranked 14th out of 42 states.
North Carolina 266
South Carolina 265
New Mexico 264
New Jersey 264
United States 259
Grade 8 math, 2007 NAEP, Hispanic students
North Carolina 273
South Carolina 272
New Jersey 271
South Dakota 269
United States 264
This is not a slander against Minnesota. Having said that, let us also say this: the state did less well at the Grade 4 level. Here you see the rankings the state achieved among the three major groups:
Grade 4 math, 2007 NAEPThe graphic Ripley used as her source was based on the 2007 NAEP. On that test, Minnesota’s white students scored quite well as compared to their peers in the other states.
Minnesota’s rankings among the fifty states
White students: 6th out of 50 states
Black students: 22nd out of 44 states with a sufficient sample
Hispanic students: 25th out of 45 states
That said, the state’s black and Hispanic students scored much less well as compared to their peers. Minnesota only ranked second overall in Grade 8 because it had many fewer minority kids than quite a few other states.
This is not an indictment of Minnesota. It’s an indictment of everyone who played a part in Ripley’s mal-composed book.
It’s an indictment of the upper-class social clubs which present themselves as “think tanks.” It’s an indictment of the education writers who heaped praise on this book—often embellishing Ripley’s embellishments as they penned their fawning reviews.
Ripley is good at human interest writing. She seems to know very little about public schools or about how to read test scores.
To the social clubs which call themselves think tanks, this type of obvious incompetence doesn’t seem to matter. They have a very high sense of entitlement—a sense that they get to do as they please. They also seem to have a strong desire to please the elites which hand them their big piles of cash.
You live in a post-journalistic world. It’s a world of expense accounts, international junkets and novels—“adventure stories.”
Tomorrow: How much did Minnesota improve? Where do things stand today?