Reading & Reacting: The only international test score info you need to know

Photo: 800px blank map of the world

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Owen Blacker

By Valerie Strauss @ The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet

Well the PISA results are out and so are the pundits and spin doctors all angling to perpetuate the myth about our broken, actually stagnant seems to be the most popular word today, American education system.

Truth be told, our rankings have changed very little. They have never really changed all that much, since they started. Of course, the first International tests were administered back in the 1960s, long before “A Nation at Risk,” and our scores on these measures have remained relatively constant.

Depending on who is doing the spinning, that means that America is simply falling behind the rest of the world. Of course, it is far too easy to look blankly at the rankings and start drawing all kinds of misguided conclusions and start making changes. No doubt there are powers that are doing just that. Yet, rarely does anyone ask the sobering question below.

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.

No we wouldn’t, actually, One of the most profound differences between America and the rest of the world is just how much we endeavor to serve all populations of students.

Every child that arrives in a public school, regardless of disability, disposition, or development is guaranteed the opportunity of attending a school, hopefully with the possibility of attending a college or university, should they so desire. That simply is not the case in many of the other countries that we are made to believe are better. We do, in fact, try to teach them all.

Considering how little movement there has been on the PISA front, it is easier to make a case that all the edreforms of the last thirty years have amounted to just about nothing. No Child Left Behind simply is ineffective when using PISA as a metric, not that it will prevent edreformers from suggesting that more of the same test-and-punish accountability methods are guaranteed to make the difference.

Ironically, the same people that are advancing the edreformy agenda are the same ones making the case that our economy depends on it. Never mind that their changes are unproven and haven’t made a dent thus far. Also, pay no attention to that research that shows what is actually stagnant are the wages of working people over the last thirty years. No, we can test our way out of those troubles.

Strauss also quotes Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, where former United State Department of education analyst Keith Baker is mentioned. However, Ravitch write her own response tot he PISA scores on her blog where she to made mention of Baker and work that he has done.

He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth–the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” He found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. “clobbered the world,” with more patents per million people than any other nation.

Yet again, evidence makes less difference to propaganda machines, which is pretty much what we have in the edreform movement, with United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan helping to lead the charge.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the notion that Finland “slipped” and is no longer the league table leader. While there will certainly be media lamentations about Finland no longer being number one, it is hard to believe that the Finns will set about overhauling their system in the aftermath. Following famous Finn Pasi Sahlberg would suggest otherwise.

No doubt there will be some internal dialogue about what the scores mean for Finland. Still, I find it hard to believe that they will begin making wholesale changes and declaring that the sky is falling like many American pundits. That doesn’t seem to be in their make up. What seems more likely is that they will continue to go their own way, worried less about what the rest of the world is doing and focused on what they might be able to improve and do better.

In fact, that response almost seems – almost – American. If only America would act more American on the education front.


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