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The only international test score info you need to know

It’s PISA Day, meaning that the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment  have just been released, and — brace yourself — the average scores for U.S. students were not very much different from any of the previous comparison years. They were generally in the middle of the pack of 65 countries and individual school systems.

PISA, developed and organized by the  Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,  is an international assessment that measures the performance of 15-year-old students in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. It started in 2000.

In the newly released 2012 results, Shanghai was on top  in reading, math and science — as it was in 2009 — with Singapore, South Korea and Japan not far behind, again. Vietnam, participating for the first time, did better than the United States in math and science.

Why can’t our schools be more like those in Shanghai (where most students attend after-school tutoring, teachers get extensive training and Chinese officials are worried about too much standardized testing), or Singapore (where officials are reforming schools to help kids become confident, moral, analytical thinkers with a “zest for life”), South Korea (famous for its after-school cram schools) and Japan (also known for its cram schools)? We wouldn’t really want them to be.

Many U.S. schools surely need to be improved and curriculum in American schools has long needed to be overhauled. (Supporters of the Common Core State Standards say that initiative will do improve the curriculum; critics say it won’t.)  But you will hear some people warn, as a result of the new PISA scores, that the sky is  falling and America’s economy and national security are at risk.

The sky, however, is not falling, at least not because of the PISA scores. For one thing, U.S. students have never scored at or even near the top of international assessments. Not ever.

Though it is often said that international test scores tell us something important about the future of American’s economy, the fact is that countries that have much higher unemployment and more troubled economies have higher PISA scores than the United States. And  U.S. students repeatedly get higher scores than some countries with lower unemployment rates. In this worthwhile post on the subject (and on how public opinion on the PISA results is being manipulated), authors Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy wrote:

Certainly, a country needs a sufficient number of highly educated workers. However, there is little reason to believe that the United States is not now at that sufficiency level, or that continued growth in educational credentials is necessary to ensure we remain there.

Test scores by themselves should never be taken alone as an indication of  how 15-year-olds are doing in school, and how 15-year-olds do on an international exam should not be taken as a proxy for the quality of their schools.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote in her new book,  “Reign of Error“:

Kevin Baker, who worked for many years as an analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, asked, “Are international tests worth anything?” Do they predict the future of a nation’s economy? He reviewed the evidence and concluded that for the United States and about a dozen of the world’s most advanced nations, “standings in the league tables of international tests are worthless. There is no association between test scores and national success, and, contrary to one of the major beliefs driving U.S. education policy for nearly half a century, international test scores are nothing to be concerned about. America’s schools are doing just find on the world scene.”
Baker argued that the purveyors of doom and gloom were committing the “ecological correlation fallacy.” It is a fallacy to generalize that what is good for an individual (a higher test score, for example) must be right for the nation as a whole.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, he said, but evidence, not just an assumption, is needed to make the case.”

His research found no reliable connection.

Rothstein and Carnoy also wrote:

Today, threats to the nation’s future prosperity come much less from flaws in our education system than from insufficiently stimulative fiscal policies which tolerate excessive unemployment, wasting much of the education our young people have acquired; an outdated infrastructure: regulatory and tax policies that reward speculation more than productivity; an over-extended military; declining public investment in research and innovation; a wasteful and inefficient health care system; and the fact that typical workers and their families, no matter how well educated, do not share in the fruits of productivity growth as they once did. The best education system we can imagine can’t succeed if we ignore these other problems.

You may be interested in this related posts:

PISA results and how public opinion is being manipulated

The fetishization of international test scores

U.S. scores on international test lowered by sampling error: report

“We’re Number Umpteenth!”: The myth of lagging U.S. schools

China’s 10 new and surprising school reform rules

Hysteria over PISA misses the point

How Shanghai topped PISA rankings — and why it’s not big news in China

Do international test scores make sense?