Where Mass. ranks on education tests

IN THE SEASON OF GRADUATIONS, it is worth looking at how Massachusetts and Boston stack up against international competitors in education. According to global university rankings and international school achievement tests, Massachusetts ranks near the top in global education excellence. According to the respected Academic Rankings of World Universities (the Shanghai rankings), when population is taken into account, Massachusetts ranks No. 6 in the world in terms of local universities in the global top 100, ahead of Germany, Sweden, Singapore, and other well-regarded higher education systems.

The Commonwealth also does well in K-12 education. In math and reading tests administered by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA and PIRLS), conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Massachusetts does quite well. These tests, conducted every few years, are considered the international gold standard for assessing the performance of national education systems. From time to time, Massachusetts has benchmarked itself against countries as well as the few US states that take part.

In higher education, Massachusetts has three universities in the top 100, another three in the top 200, and two more in the top 500. In the US, only California scored better. In the K-12 tests, Massachusetts (separated from the US as a whole) scored sixth in the world in 8th grade math and science in TIMSS, and 4th at the fourth grade. It was also ranked No. 1 among 12 US states along with Canadian provinces (leaving out the country rankings) that participated in the 8th grade test. In the OECD’s PISA exams, only Singapore outranked Massachusetts in science, and no country outranked Massachusetts in reading, although a small number of countries had similar scores.

An interesting study prepared for the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in 2016 compared the academic structures of Boston, London, and Paris in an effort to help Paris improve its position in science and scholarship. Although much smaller in population than London or Paris, Boston scored very well. The researchers pointed to Boston’s ecology of higher education excellence. Not only does the Boston area host three universities in the top 100 (Harvard (#1), MIT (#5), and Boston University (#75)), but four additional institutions in the top 500 (Boston College, Brandeis, Northeastern, and Tufts), more than most countries with much larger populations. They noted the importance not only of the universities at the pinnacle, but the excellent research universities just below them, as well as large numbers of other strong postsecondary institutions serving diverse purposes and populations. The CNRS report cited Boston’s knowledge-based economy—not only education and research, but also biotech, info-tech, and finance—and argued that this powerful combination is instrumental to Boston’s strength.

While Massachusetts ranks eighth in the United States in per student spending for K-12 education, it does much worse in support for higher education. State support for public higher education has declined by 14 percent since 2001 with per student cutbacks at 31 percent. Massachusetts ranks 43rd in the US in support for public higher education as a proportion of personal income. Of course, these cuts were accompanied by increases in tuition and fees, making the Commonwealth one of the most expensive states for public higher education. Thus, the “Massachusetts Miracle” in education is not due to state support for education in general or especially for higher education, but is continuing despite reduced public funding. Despite these problems, public higher education constitutes an important part of the effective ecosystem that contributes to the state’s strength.

For higher education, much of the success is the strength and diversity of the private higher education sector. Private colleges and universities in general rank higher than their public counterparts in the Commonwealth. Nationally, around 80 percent of postsecondary students study at public institutions, but the corresponding number is 53 percent in Massachusetts. Thus, the non-profit private sector carries much of the burden of both quality and quantity in higher education.

Further, Boston-area universities, led by MIT, contribute significantly to economic development in the region. The start-ups that have emerged from basic and applied research in the universities and the contributions to the economy from international students are just two examples of the synergy between the universities and the economy.

As the French CNRS report points out, the Boston area has a rather unique ecosystem that supports education and the knowledge economy generally. The range of knowledge industry firms supports the system. It is not surprising that Boston has the highest proportion of millennials of any American city. Boston is particularly welcoming to what futurist Richard Florida has called the “creative class.” At the core of the ecosystem are the educational institutions, including many high-quality public and private schools, but also the not insignificant array of cultural institutions, restaurants, and sports.

Meet the Author

Philip Altbach

Research professor and founding director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College
The region cannot rest on its laurels. Deteriorating public transportation, a shortage of affordable housing, deepening income inequalities, funding cuts to public higher education, and other problems are all alarming. But during graduation season, it is worth celebrating regional excellence in education.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.