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What international test scores really mean

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Here we go again. New international test scores were released today and their meaning is in the eye of the interpreter. Here are some headlines from different news sites with some different takes on the results:

Education Week: U.S. Math, Science Achievement Exceeds World Average

The Washington Post: U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, reading, science

Huffington Post: International Tests Show East Asian Students Outperform World As U.S. Holds Steady

The Boston Globe: Mass. pupils near the top in math and science; State 8th graders lead peers in most nations; a boost for prospects in world marketplace

The Wall Street Journal: Competitors Still Beat U.S. in Tests

Orlando Sentinel: Florida students wow the world with ‘outstanding’ reading-test results

Bloomberg Businessweek: ‘Breathtaking’ Math, Science Gap: U.S. Kids vs. Asians

These all refer to the release today of data from the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, known as PIRLS, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, referred to as TIMSS. The headlines above tell you the obvious story, though hardly the whole story.

For one thing, the Boston and Orlando headlines refer to the fact that a number of U.S. states submitted their scores as separate entities, allowing them to be compared with entire countries. Florida, it turns out, turned in world-class fourth-grade reading scores, but there are some things to know about these results: Florida holds back third graders who can’t read and has pushed literacy for about a decade. But it seems fair to ask whether high fourth-grade reading scores mean much when eighth-grade reading scores aren’t nearly as high and when new federal data on high school graduation rates — the first set of stats put together in which states used common standards — showed Florida near the bottom.

Whenever international test scores come out and the United States isn’t on or anywhere near the top, there is a hue and cry about what the results mean for the future of the country, and it isn’t ever good. These fears always ignore the fact that the United States has never been near the top, that different countries test different populations of students, and that some populations of American students do as well as anybody in the world.

Now here’s the headline, based on the new TIMSS and PIRLS data, you didn’t see:

“U.S. low-poverty schools do much better than high-poverty schools in international tests.”

In fact, that is true on all standardized tests. And that continues to be the real story in U.S. education, not how American students’ scores stack up against Singapore or the South Koreans.