Education Letter to the Editor

On TIMSS: U.S. Students ‘Do Better in Real World’

January 06, 2009 1 min read

To the Editor:

You don’t have to be an apologist for public schools in this country to realize that the distinctions Mark Schneider makes in his recent online Commentary between the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Program for International Student Assessment, while technically accurate, have little practical significance (“Reading the TIMSS Results,” edweek.org, Dec. 9, 2008). Test scores on both instruments easily allow countries around the globe to be ranked, but these results can hardly be construed as convincing evidence of America’s inability to compete in the new global economy.

A far better explanation was provided in an interview of Singapore’s then-minister of education, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in Newsweek on Jan. 9, 2006. Although students in his country consistently placed near the top in tests of international competition in math and science, he acknowledged that American students do better in the real world. His words in this regard bear repeating: “We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy.”

Mr. Shanmugaratnam’s remarks were underscored by a study in the International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership in April 2008. It found that the data from previous studies suggest that the relationship between student-achievement rankings on international assessments of reading, mathematics, and science and a nation’s future economic growth is untenable and not causal. In short, there is no linear relationship between the general level of educational attainment and a nation’s gross domestic product.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as On TIMSS: U.S. Students ‘Do Better in Real World’