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Making Sense of International Test Competition

By Walt Gardner — November 11, 2011 2 min read
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It was inevitable that a study of how American students perform against their counterparts around the globe would challenge longstanding assumptions about the role that poverty plays. In “When the Best Is Mediocre,” Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee developed the Global Report Card to compare reading and math achievement between 2004 and 2007 for “virtually every public school district in the United States with the average achievement in a set of 25 other countries with developed economies that might be considered our economic peers and sometime competitors” (Education Next, Winter 2012).

What the study found was that even affluent suburban school districts - the ones Americans take such pride in - “often produce results that are mediocre when compared with those of our international peers.” How is this possible if poverty is supposed to be so predictive of performance? After all, these elite districts are populated by children of the wealthiest families in their respective communities. To answer this question requires unpacking what is in the report.

First, the study focused on math, claiming it is the subject that provides the best comparisons across countries and is most closely correlated with economic growth. However, that assertion alone is arguable. Successful corporate leadership does not depend on math expertise alone. It also involves other wherewithal, such as the ability to inspire others. If this were not true, then only certified public accountants would be heading up megacorporations. A more sinister explanation about those who rise to the top is contained in a provocative essay in The Guardian (“The 1% are the very best destroyers of wealth the world has ever seen,” Nov. 7). The writer argues that talent and intelligence are not nearly as important as a “combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth.”

Second, the Greene-McGee study does not make fair comparisons. In “PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid,” Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, argues that a more accurate assessment of the performance of American students in reading would entail comparing the scores of schools here with schools having similar poverty rates abroad (The Principal Difference, Dec. 2010). Schools with less than a 10 percent poverty rate had a PISA score of 551, ranking the U.S. No. 1 compared to ten countries with similar rates. In the next category of 10-24.9 percent poverty rate, the U.S. still placed No. 1 with a score of 527 out of 10 comparable nations.

Finally, I question the obsession with rankings in general. When scores on the closely watched PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS are examined, it becomes obvious that small differences in scores loom large because of their ability to determine rankings. Is a four- or five-point difference on a standardized test significant in the real world? Yet you’d never know that by reading alarmist stories by corporate education reformers.

It’s time to put the entire issue of rankings in proper perspective. They distort educational quality, leading taxpayers to make flawed judgments about how young people are educated. This plays right into the hands of privateers who want to undermine confidence in public schools. Data collection is important, but it has to be properly interpreted.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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