Education Letter to the Editor

America’s Economic Future Does Not Hinge on PISA Scores

May 16, 2017 1 min read

To the Editor:

In recent years, Education Week has published at least one Commentary and one opinion-blog post that argue for the very strong connection between the United States’ economic future and international test results, specifically those from the Program for International Student Assessment. In a Commentary three years ago (“Why the U.S. Results on PISA Matter,” Jan. 8, 2014), the Hoover Institution’s Eric A. Hanushek argued that this country’s PISA scores—which measure the progress of 15-year-olds nationwide in reading, math, and science—had “huge economic ramifications.”

So great were the projected economic gains, according to Hanushek’s own research, that the potential payout was calculated to be “20 percent higher paychecks for the average [U.S.] worker over the entire 21st century.” Similarly, a post by Marc Tucker two years ago (“Why Some Economies Grow and Others Don’t,” Top Performers blog, www.edweek.org, July 1, 2015) lauded Hanushek’s analysis as “stunning.” Tucker predicted, based on Hanushek’s research, that the long-term gains of raising student test scores would “bring in about $67 trillion dollars over the next 50 years,” a figure dwarfing the $4 trillion lost over the Great Recession.

But what if Hanushek’s numbers were actually wrong? A recent study—our own—scrutinizes these causality claims, using the same sample of countries, data, and methods on which Hanushek basedhis findings. But since it takes a few decades for students to make up a major portion of the labor force, we compared test scores for one period (1964 to 2003) with economic growth in a subsequent period (1995 to 2014).

Surprisingly, the relationship, which once looked so strong, now looks highly suspect. We found that test scores, which originally explained 57 percent of the variation in gross domestic product per-capita growth among countries, now explained only 11 percent of the variation.The real casualty of Hanushek’s research is the causality claim, as well as the would-be policy recommendations built upon them.

We hope this helps readers to view the close link between PISA scores and a prosperous economy with a more critical eye.

Hikaru Komatsu

Associate Professor

Jeremy Rappleye

Associate Professor

Graduate School of Education

Kyoto University

Kyoto, Japan

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as America’s Economic Future Does Not Hinge on PISA Scores