I published a post last week, headlined “The fetishization of international test scores,” that, as the title suggests, discusses how school reformers inappropriately obsess about international test scores. Some people in the education world took issue with with my views, including Marc Tucker, president of the non-profit National Center on Education and the Economy, an internationally known expert on reform and editor of “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems” (Harvard Education Press, November 2011).  Following is the original post, broken up with Tucker’s comments in italics.

Here’s my original “fetishization” with Tucker’s responses in italics:

STRAUSS: Not one, not two, but 10 national educational organizations are planning to host a blowout digital event to talk about (what else?) international standardized test scores. There’s even a new Web site just for PISA Day, called, you won’t be surprised to learn, PISADay.org.

The event is being held on Dec. 3, the same day as the release of the latest scores from PISA, the  Program  for International Student Assessment,  a test of reading, math and science given every three years to 15-year-old students in more than 65 countries and education systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The new Web site says representatives from 10 organizations will analyze the results, as well as “their implications for U.S. education policy.”  They are:  Alliance for Excellent Education, Achieve, ACT, America Achieves, Asia Society, Business Roundtable, College Board, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and National Center on Education and the Economy.

With so many organizations hosting, it makes you wonder how anybody is going to get in a word edgewise during the conversation.  Beyond that, the real question is why we keep placing so much importance on where U.S. students stand next to international students, given that there are real problems with making comparisons.

First of all, judging just about anything important on the sole basis of test scores is never a good idea. That’s not just me talking; assessment experts say it over and over and over.

TUCKER: No one I know is saying that PISA should be the only measure of national education success, much less that the PISA rankings on language, mathematics and science should be only measure.  But I would argue that they are the best single measure we have.  And that is because PISA measures not just what you know, but mainly what you can do with what you know.  You make it sound as though you think we should ignore the PISA findings, but wouldn’t you agree that it is important to have at least a rough measure of how the achievements of American students compare to those of students elsewhere in the world?

STRAUSS: Furthermore, U.S. students have never performed on international tests — including PISA. Public schools have long been blamed when something happens to challenge the country’s standing in the world. It happened when the Soviet Union launched the first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and in 1983 when the Japanese automobile industry was booming and America’s wasn’t. Of course when the U.S. economy was roaring in the 1990s, you never heard anybody thank the public schools, but never mind.

TUCKER: There are two things I disagree with here.  First, there is at least a 20-year delay between the point at which a country adopts a particular set of education policies and the time that the effects of those policy changes begin to be seen in the skills of that country’s workforce.  The second is your argument that education is always blamed when the economy does poorly but never thanked when it is doing fine.  The record shows a steady increase in access to education and in the quality of education from the middle of the 19th century to the 1970s.  Through that whole period, subject to the usual vicissitudes of the business cycle, the American economy bulled ahead until we had the strongest economy in the world.  Since the 1970s, access to education in the United States and improvements in the quality of education came to a crashing halt.  Both have been flat for 40 years.  The result, contrary to your account, has been a halt and now a decline in average real wages in the United States.  The top one percent—the owners of capital—have been doing just fine, but the rest have not.  The schools were thanked over the course of more than a century when they continually outdid themselves in access and quality.  And they have not been thanked since then, partly because, although improvements in access and quality stopped, the cost of education at every level continued to increase.  American are angry with our educators because they are paying more and more for education that is no easier to access and of no better quality than forty years ago, when it was much cheaper.

STRAUSS: There are also questions about whether the test scores show what they pretend to show. A report released early this year by Martin Carnoy of the Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute raised questions about whether the average scores in the 2009 PISA were reported lower than they should have been.

TUCKER: Carnoy and Rothstein argue that the scores of American students on PISA should be corrected for the unusually large proportion of students from low-income students in the sample.  They come close to saying that, if you just took those students out, we would perform very well.  But that is a very odd argument.  No one is going to give the United States a pass in the global economy because so many of our students come from low-income families, point one.  Point two, by our standards, most of the students in Shanghai are poor, and they outperform us by a country mile.  Point three, in the last round of the PISA survey only four countries, all of them developing countries, did worse than we did on a very important measure, the degree to which socio-economic background predicts academic achievement.  Carnoy and Rothstein would have you believe that our schools are doing the best that could be done by anyone, but they are just being overwhelmed by kids from low-income backgrounds.  But that is not true.  The fact that socio-economic background is a much better predictor of academic success in the United States than in most countries in the PISA sample shows that our schools do less than schools in other countries to lift students from low-income families out of poverty.  Fourth, we need to look at how the United States performs against the PISA performance quartiles.  It is not only true that a very large proportion of our students scores in the bottom performance quartile.  It is also true that a disproportionately small proportion of our students scores in the top quartile.  A greater proportion of students in the top-performing countries place in the top performance quartile than is the case for American students.  So it is not the case that, if you took the students from low-income families out of the calculation, the United States would be a top performer, as Carnoy and Rothstein suggest.

STRAUSS: The last time PISA results were released — 2009 scores made public in 2010 — the United States wasn’t anywhere near the top, a performance that was pretty much like it has for years and years and years, when the U.S. economy was roaring and when it wasn’t.  The sky was falling, if you believed all of the cries of horror from policy makers and politicians.

TUCKER: See my point above.  The stock market may have been roaring, but the American worker was not.  There has actually been a very close correlation between our education performance and the standard of living of the average American, especially if you take the time delay I mentioned above into account.

STRAUSS: Shanghai, participating for the first time in PISA, came out on top in all three areas out of about 65 countries and other education systems, and one education pundit actually compared the news to the attack on Pearl Harbor. If it sounds hysterical, that’s because it was.

TUCKER: It was hysterical only in that it was not a military attack.  But not at all hysterical in terms of the likely long-term outcome for the standard of living of most Americans.  Anyone who believes in this day and age that national education performance is irrelevant to national economic performance is whistling Dixie.

STRAUSS: What was ignored was that Shanghai doesn’t represent all of China and that the Chinese education system has been geared toward test-taking. And, most interestingly, Chinese education officials have recently announced a major school reform that is aimed at deemphasizing standardized test scores. Why? They believe it has stifled creativity and led to a narrow curriculum and bored students. Have you heard a single school reformer in the United States talk about that?

TUCKER: Two points are relevant here.  First, most observers believe that the academic performance of students in most of the coastal provinces, when measured, will turn out to be close to that of Shanghai.  In any case, the fact that there are other provinces in which performance is likely to be below that of Shanghai is neither here nor there.  Shanghai has a population of about 23 million people.  Americans are not competing with the whole of China (about 1.3 billion people).  We are competing with the coastal provinces.  That is what matters.  With respect to the point about test scores, your point puzzles me.  I have advocated less standardized testing in the United States, so that we could spend the same amount on testing and get much better tests.  It turns out that, as most of the top-performing countries have improved the quality of their teachers, they have tested less and trusted their teachers more.  But what does that have to do with PISA?  PISA is administered to a tiny sample of students in a handful of subjects at one age level.

STRAUSS: There’s another issue that gets overlooked in PISA score discussions: American students who took PISA in 2009 and attended low-poverty schools scored on average as high as the highest scorers in the world. American students in high-poverty schools scored far lower than the average.

TUCKER: See my points above about the performance quartiles and U.S. performance on the equity dimension of PISA.  I am in complete agreement with the proposition that income inequality and child poverty are giant problems in this country and an enormous burden on our schools.  But it does not follow that we would be doing just fine if we did not have so many many poor kids. That is not what the data show.

Further thoughts about Tucker’s comments:

Tucker said that he believes PISA rankings are the “best single measure” we have about national educational success, which, incidentally, I’ve heard people say about the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He asks if I would agree that it is important to have at least a rough measure of how the achievements of American students compare to those of students elsewhere in the world. I’m not an assessment expert or close to being one, but it seems to me that a rough measure may be too rough to have much meaning.

Furthermore, as I noted, the United States has never scored well on international test scores. And, when the U.S. economy was doing well in the 1990s, nobody thanked the public schools.  Tucker notes the economy was doing well in that decade but says the worker wasn’t. I still don’t see how the public schools are the fault of the problems of workers.

Tucker  wrote, “Anyone who believes in this day and age that national education performance is irrelevant to national economic performance is whistling Dixie.”  Well, countries that have much higher unemployment and more troubled economies have higher PISA scores. And U.S. students did better than some countries with lower unemployment rates.

Stay tuned for more on this issue.