In Shift, U.S. Plans A Record Number of International Studies

By Robert Rothman — February 20, 1991 8 min read

Once indifferent to international comparisons in education, the United States is embarking on an unprecedented number of cross-national studies of students’ academic achievement.

Later this month, some 15,000 4th and 9th graders will take part in a 34-nation assessment of reading and literacy achievement. At the same time, some 1,650 9- and 13-year-olds will also take part in a 20-nation test in science and mathematics.

Two other long-term studies--a 14-nation evaluation of early-childhood policies and programs and a 20-nation study of computers in education--are also under way.

And late last year, two federal agencies gave approval for U.S. participation in planning for two upcoming assessments in science and math, expected to take place in 1993-94 and 1997-98.

This flurry of activity, educators point out, represents a sharp contrast from a decade ago, when international studies limped along because of uncertain federal funding.

The government’s attitude toward such studies has changed, most observers agree, because of increased concern in this country about global economic competition and the role education plays in ensuring economic power. This point of view, they note, is reflected in the education goals adopted by President Bush and the nation’s governors, which pledge that U.S. students will be “first in the world” in science and math by 2000.

“Since the early 1980’s, when there was an increased interest in the U.S. position in international competition,” said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, “there has been a need for better comparisons of what happens in different education systems around the world, and the results of the education programs.”

At the same time, added Emerson J. Elliott, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, policymakers grew interested in the ability of such assessments to offer “deeper insights into what our deficiencies might be, and how to improve things.”

But some educators warn that the international competitions might generate little more than a “horse race” that would do little to improve education.

“As long as they are testing for the same old thing, the tests aren’t worth much,” argued Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

“If they tested for deep understanding,” he said, “that would be worth something.”

With the exception of this month’s math and science assessment, which is directed by the Educational Testing Service, all of the studies under way now are being conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, known as the iea

Formed in the early 1960’s by researchers interested in conducting multinational studies, the iea has over the past two and a half decades sponsored major studies in science, math, and writing, among other subjects.

Some researchers in the United States have criticized the studies as technically flawed, and cited problems in the way the participating students were selected and in the way the tests were administered.

Norman M. Bradburn, chairman of the board on international comparative studies in education of the National Academy of Sciences, which was formed in 1988 to oversee U.S. participation in such studies, said the iea’s problems in the past reflected the fact that it was “grossly underfunded.”

“They knew about the sampling, measurement, and quality-control problems,” said Mr. Bradburn, who is director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. “They didn’t have the resources to do anything about it.”

He added that the researchers tried to compensate for the studies’ shortcomings by explaining them in their analyses. But such a solution is “second best, at best,” he said.

Mr. Elliott of the center for statistics, an arm of the U.S. Education Department, said the government was long reluctant to fund such studies because federal officials were offered scant opportunity to oversee them.

“The feds were asked at the 11th hour to come up with money,” he said. “The contractors and the sample were picked. We had no way to influence the project. That’s not a good way for the U.S. government to be participating.”

The situation has improved in recent years, Mr. Elliott said. The iea has become more stable, with a permanent office in the Netherlands, and the Education Department has become more directly involved in designing the studies.

For example, Mr. Elliott noted, the center for statistics is the U.S. coordinator for the literacy study, and federal officials asked the iea to conduct the math and science8studies in 1993-94 and 1997-98.

The center has also budgeted $6 million for the literacy study, and $10 million for each of the math and science studies, the commissioner noted. The National Science Foundation is also supporting the math and science studies, he said.

Mr. Elliott added that the government also has become more willing to support international studies because its officials are interested in the results.

Previous international studies in science and math, which showed that U.S. students lagged far behind their peers, led directly to the national goal of making Americans “first in the world” in those subjects, he said.

“People wanted international comparisons,” Mr. Elliott said. “It’s built into goal number four,” which lays out the U.S. target for achievement in the two subjects.

To a certain extent, Mr. Bradburn of the National Academy of Sciences panel added, the growing interest in international comparisons mirrors the interest in state-by-state comparisons. Although states were in the early 1980’s reluctant to compare test scores, he noted, more than two-thirds participated in the first state-level assessment, conducted last year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“Once you start asking that,” Mr. Bradburn said, “you can go the other way, and start asking internationally.”

Mr. Ambach of the state chiefs’ group, who is national coordinator of the iea, predicted that, on the upcoming math and science assessments, many states will test a sample of their own students to compare their performance with that of students from other nations.

At least three states conducted similar assessments following the iea’s second international math study, and Colorado is funding a larger sample of its own students to gauge their performance on this month’s International Assessment of Educational Progress test in math and science.

“There is a recognition by [state] chiefs that the competitive zones for educational results is no longer one school to the next, one school district to the next, or even one state to the next,” Mr. Ambach said. “It’s the state to the world, and to other countries.”

In addition to finding out how the performance of American students compares with that of their peers in other nations, many policymakers are interested in international assessments to gain more insight into the factors that influence performance.

“Educators could sit down with a list of countries and put them in rank order” of performance, said Archie E. Lapointe, director of the ets’s center for the assessment of educational progress and director of the IAEP study. “What we are looking for is, what is it in these countries that will help kids be successful?”

The international study can evaluate a broader range of school policies and student backgrounds than national assessments can gauge, said Alan E. Farstrup, director of research for the International Reading Association.

“We can learn about the characteristics of teachers, and the teaching environment that exists in different parts of the world,” he said, “as well as the contribution of home environment and school resources to the outcomes.”

David P. Weikert, president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and international coordinator of the iea’s preprimary project, said the perspective provided by the international study is particularly valuable in early-childhood education, where practices vary greatly from country to country.

“We can take advantage of a range of differences to contrast what we do,” Mr. Weikert said. “It’s not a question of what’s better; it’s a broader awareness of what can be done.”

The findings can also help educators evaluate school curricula to see where weaknesses lie, said Thomas A. Romberg, director of the national center for research in mathematical-sciences education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The iea’s second international math study, he noted, found that American students performed relatively well on computational skills, but poorly on questions that required problem-solving abilities. A report on that study, released in 1987, helped bolster curriculum-reform efforts in this country.

“We expect much less of our kids than other countries” do of theirs, Mr. Romberg said. “We knew that before giving the tests. But the tests confirm it.”

Mr. Ambach of the chiefs’ organization acknowledged, however, that the data from multinational studies are subject to misinterpretation.

For example, he said, some commentators have suggested that the international studies “show” that the school year here should be lengthened, since students in Japan, which has a 240-day year, outperformed those in the United States, with a 180-day year. In fact, he pointed out, other countries with shorter school years also outperformed the United States.

“The only way to overcome that,” Mr. Ambach said, “is for the government and scholars to make, in releasing the results, as careful as they can, an interpretation of what one can infer from the results, and what one can’t.”

“If someone wants to bend the results around, they’ll do it,” he added. “But we’ve got to take that risk and increase the number of studies, their scope, and the types of data collected.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as In Shift, U.S. Plans A Record Number of International Studies