Us (Meaning the U.S.) Against the World

By Sean Cavanagh — December 23, 2008 2 min read
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With the recent release of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (suggested headline: Mixed Results for the United States), it’s worth noting that there are many good opinion pieces and commentaries being put forward by researchers offering their take on how to interpret these and other, nation v. nation exams.

The obvious question these commentators are trying to get at is: How good- or bad-off are we? In trying to interpret those results, I’m struck by how many respected, astute researchers have looked at the available data from international tests like TIMSS and PISA and come to very different conclusions.

One interesting opinion piece was published in the commentary section of my very own newspaper by Mark Schneider, who recently stepped down as chief of the National Center for Education Statistics. Schneider notes that, on the sunny side of things, the American students beat the averages scores on the TIMSS, and that we have many students performing at a very high level.

But he also presents a much darker view. Schneider examines the “effect sizes” of the performance gap between U.S. students and their peers in other nations, and between different populations within our country, on the TIMSS and other tests. He finds that the difference separating the performance of grade 4 students from rich and poor backgrounds in the United States is much larger than the score-distance between the United States and top-performing Hong Kong on the TIMSS. Similarly, the 4th grade gap between the United States and Hong Kong is even greater than the difference between the highest- and lowest-performing states on the 4th grade NAEP—an American exam—Massachusetts and Mississippi.

Researchers Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell have a different take on many of the international test results. On tests like TIMSS and PISA, far too much attention is paid to average test scores, they have argued. The United States has a relatively strong portion of high-performing students on international tests, and by virtue of the overall size of its population, produces far more students with the skills necessary to enter science and engineering related professions that everybody seems so worried about. They are troubled, however, by the United States producing large numbers of low-performing students, compared to foreign competitors.Some of these views are presented in a recent article in Nature, as well as in an earlier report.

The education researcher Gerald Bracey has also written extensively about his view that claims about U.S. students’ educational inadequacies, as judged by average test scores, are grossly exaggerated. A sampling of his opinions of this topic is provided here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.