The Only International Test Score Info You Need to Know

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, December 3, 2013

It’s PISA Day, meaning that the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment  have just been released, and—brace yourself–the average scores for U.S. students were not very much different from any of the previous comparison years. They were generally in the middle of the pack of 65 countries and individual school systems.


In the newly released 2012 results, Shanghai was on top  in reading, math and science — as it was in 2009 — with Singapore, South Korea and Japan not far behind, again. Vietnam, participating for the first time, did better than the United States in math and science.

Why can’t our schools be more like those in Shanghai (where most students attend after-school tutoring, teachers get extensive training and Chinese officials are worried about too much standardized testing), or Singapore (where officials are reforming schools to help kids become confident, moral, analytical thinkers with a “zest for life”), South Korea (famous for its after-school cram schools) and Japan (also known for its cram schools)? We wouldn’t really want them to be.

Many U.S. schools surely need to be improved and curriculum in American schools has long needed to be overhauled. {snip}

The sky, however, is not falling, at least not because of the PISA scores. For one thing, U.S. students have never scored at or even near the top of international assessments. Not ever.

Though it is often said that international test scores tell us something important about the future of American’s economy, the fact is that countries that have much higher unemployment and more troubled economies have higher PISA scores than the United States. And  U.S. students repeatedly get higher scores than some countries with lower unemployment rates. {snip}


Test scores by themselves should never be taken alone as an indication of  how 15-year-olds are doing in school, and how 15-year-olds do on an international exam should not be taken as a proxy for the quality of their schools.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote in her new book,  “Reign of Error“:

Kevin Baker, who worked for many years as an analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, asked, “Are international tests worth anything?” Do they predict the future of a nation’s economy? He reviewed the evidence and concluded that for the United States and about a dozen of the world’s most advanced nations, “standings in the league tables of international tests are worthless. There is no association between test scores and national success, and, contrary to one of the major beliefs driving U.S. education policy for nearly half a century, international test scores are nothing to be concerned about. America’s schools are doing just fine on the world scene.”

Baker argued that the purveyors of doom and gloom were committing the “ecological correlation fallacy.” It is a fallacy to generalize that what is good for an individual (a higher test score, for example) must be right for the nation as a whole.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, he said, but evidence, not just an assumption, is needed to make the case.”

His research found no reliable connection.


Percentage of 15-year-old students performing at PISA mathematics literacy proficiency levels 5 and above and below level 2, by education system: 2012

Percentage of 15-year-old students performing at PISA mathematics literacy proficiency levels 5 and above and below level 2, by education system: 2012. Source.

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