PISA Scores Show Demography Is Destiny In Education Too–But Washington Doesn’t Want You to Know

Steve Sailer, VDARE, December 19, 2010

Every three years, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], the rich country’s club, announces the results of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). These are tests of school achievement for 15-year-olds in the 34 OECD countries, plus 31 other countries or regions.


It took me two days of looking through the voluminous PISA results to create the simple graph below. It shows what the Great and Good don’t want you to know about the 2009 PISA results: When broken down by ethnicity, American students did reasonably well compared to the countries from which their ancestors came.

In this chart, I’ve depicted American ethnic groups in red to show where they fall relative to other countries, which are colored to reflect their dominant populations.

As my chart shows:

* Asian Americans outscored every Asian country, and lost out only to the city of Shanghai, China’s financial capital.

* White Americans students outperformed the national average in every one of the 37 historically white countries tested, except Finland (which is, perhaps not coincidentally, an immigration restrictionist nation where whites make up about 99 percent of the population).

* Hispanic Americans beat all eight Latin American countries.

* African Americans would likely have outscored any sub-Saharan country, if any had bothered to compete. {snip}

PISA test scores are allotted in roughly the same fashion as for the SAT. The mean for the 34 OECD First World countries was originally set at 500, with a standard deviation of 100. The PISA test was also given in 31 other places, mostly poorer countries, most of which score well under 500. {snip}

[See] my bar chart [below] of American scores by ethnicity. Interestingly, American Hispanics did significantly better in reading in 2009 than they had done in science in 2006 and in math in 2003.

Why does my second graph have to compare reading scores from 2009 to science scores from 2006 and math scores from 2003?

Because PISA and the U.S. government apparently conspire to keep the ethnic breakdowns of American scores a secret, except for whichever subject is the main theme of that year’s PISA (reading in 2009, science in 2006, and math in 2003). Thus the only American scores broken down by ethnicity yet released for 2009 were for reading.

Yet all three subjects are tested each year, and scores for all subjects are released in mind-numbing detail cross-tabbed for every conceivable factor . . . except race.

Considering the hundreds of pages of data PISA releases on its website on all three tests for 2009, it’s ludicrous (yet unsurprising) that PISA won’t publish the ethnic breakdowns it has collected. The words “Hispanic” or “Latino” don’t appear anywhere in the otherwise endless PISA 2009 data.

Instead, PISA conveyed the ethnic data confidentially to the U.S. government–which then released the racial breakdowns for just the reading test on its National Center for Educational Statistics website (PDF).

The goal of this byzantine process is evidently to make it more inconvenient for crass outsiders and possible critics to grasp the patterns underlying the scores.


A few caveats about the strong performance of the U.S.:

First: in 2009, the U.S. did slightly better in reading than in science, and moderately better in science than in math. So, my top graph, showing the 2009 reading results, puts America’s best foot forward in what ought to be a three-legged race. But of course I can’t show you PISA scores by ethnicity for 2009 in science and math because they are, apparently, federal secrets.

Second: my top chart does not offer a true apples-to-apples comparison of whites in America to whites in other traditionally white countries. For example, New Zealand whites scored 541 on reading in 2009, 16 points above American whites. But the Kiwis’ national scores are dragged down somewhat by the indigenous Maori and by Pacific Islander immigrants, who do more for the current competitiveness of New Zealand’s national rugby team than for the future competitiveness of its 21st Century economy.


Third: America pays royally for the results we do get. We spend more per student than any country in the world, other than Luxembourg, a small, rich tax haven. We spend about fifty percent more per student than Finland does.


An important question remains: How much can we trust the PISA results?


But the fact that Northeast Asians tend to be smarter than Latin Americans is not the kind of thing you are supposed to discuss in the American MSM. It’s considered both too obvious and too irresponsible to mention.


Before reading too much into detailed results, here are some inherent problems with this kind of international testing that should borne in mind.

First: although the PISA officials worked hard to come up with representative samples of 15-year-old students in representative samples of schools, not all 15-year-olds are students. So, in countries with a high dropout rate, scores artificially boosted because the unstudious are not tested. {snip}

(Similarly, the overall ethnic gaps within the U.S. are larger than those shown in my second chart because of higher dropout rates among Hispanics and blacks.)


Second: Might administrators cheat? {snip} We can’t know for sure.

Third: how motivated students are to work hard on the test is a significant imponderable. Administrators and teachers are supposed to motivate the students, but not threaten them. So, at least in theory, PISA is a low-stakes test for students. Doing badly on it isn’t supposed to hurt them. Which means the temptation to slack off and “bubble in” some of the answers is always there.






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