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This week saw the publication of the PISA scores - the Programme for International Student Assessment, conducted every three years by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) - which tests 15-year-old students around the world in core subject areas. The results showed the United States scoring average in Science, above average in Reading and below average in Math. And immediately the cries arose: This is clearly evidence we need to test our students more! Obviously our teachers aren't as high quality as other countries' teachers! Our children are failing because their parents don't have choice! We need to double down on our test scores! Jeb Bush, the self-appointed Chief Education Reformer, sent out a very troubled letter bemoaning our "performance on the world stage." Arne Duncan declared that the scores painted a "picture of educational stagnation." Funny, our education leaders don't seem to have much confidence in their own reform efforts.
This sky-is-falling! response is ridiculous. Let's just take a breath and thoughtfully consider some important truths:
1. The top 3 scoring regions on the PISA list are actually cities. Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong were the top scoring regions. In fact, China as a country was not even included. All the bemoaning about how the U.S. falls so far behind Chinese students ignores the fact that the top scoring Chinese regions were very small populations of non-diverse students. Comparing them against countries of huge geographical, economic and ethnic diversity doesn't even make sense. In fact, Shanghai is only 2% of China's population and has twice the GDP of the rest of the country. In addition, studies indicate that the scores of top Asian regions may in fact show other indicators:
The best students are not in fact, super clever, great thinkers or the world’s future academics, they are simply extremely hard working, study machines who memorise and churn out answers for tests in mere minutes. They spend all their time on nothing but study, revision, homework, ‘pre-study’ (a term I’d never encountered until arriving in China), learning test techniques, and taking practice papers.
Other top scoring countries are small, homogeneous regions that have the ability to regulate and control their education at a centralized level, thus ensuring equal access, opportunity, and results for students of fairly low diversity. Consider the value of comparing these scores with the entirety, size, and diversity of the United States. How can they even compare?
2. The U.S. has not lowered its scores significantly over the years, and despite the hits public schools have taken, scores have maintained. This important fact was pointed out by Diane Ravitch in response to the PISA scores:
Over the past half century, our students have typically scored at or near the median, or even in the bottom quartile.
In fact, the lack of movement in U.S. scores appears to indicate that all of the efforts of the Jeb Bushes, Arne Duncans and Michelle Rhees over the last two decades have actually not created any of the progress that they tout. Enacting NCLB 12 years ago has had no significant impact on U.S. test scores in this international comparison.
3. Test scores reveal the limits placed on students, not their true abilities or potential. Keith Baker published a paper in 2007 titled, “Are International Tests Worth Anything?” In it, he compared economic changes in countries that were scored against each other on education assessments. He found that there was no correlation between a country's economic health and its students' test scores. The test scores also did not show a relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. In fact, when it came to creativity, the United States "clobbered the world," based on the amount of patents per million people. The test scores can't show that. Baker argues that what has mattered most for the success of the U.S. economically, culturally and technologically have been factors like "ambition, inquisitiveness, independence." How do you score those?
So we have established that international comparisons are of little to no value in evaluating progress in American schools, and the PISA scores in particular are very skewed. We have also seen that the U.S. has maintained is general international position despite massive efforts to institute constant high stakes testing in the last two decades. And we have examined how test scores never show a clear picture of either potential or success. So where does that leave us?
Certainly using these PISA scores as excuses to further pile negative recriminations on the heads of our students and our teachers is not only useless, it's highly disingenuous. Those who claim that these scores indicate some lack in our students' and/or teachers' abilities do not care to acknowledge that over a quarter of our students live in poverty and food uncertainty, that despite very recent efforts to provide common national standards, the diversity of education rigor and resources in the 50 states is immense, or that our students excel in numerous other ways that are never measured on international assessments.
In the end, testing can only go so far towards improving education or determining achievement - especially the achievement of the country as a whole. Sure, tests can be a great way to get people motivated to make change, they can provide ways to compare some aspects of improvement or progress, and they are easy to conduct and use. But they only measure very limited aspects of a student's academic and intellectual abilities. After a certain point, tests become negligible in determining true factors of success. Certainly comparing whole countries of students to other non-similar countries offers no helpful information. Pouring so much effort into testing results removes resources from areas like creative thinking, critical analysis, ability to question, artistic and technical skill enhancement, and aspects of character development like grit, determination, individuality, empathy, imagination, and teamwork. Does it truly make our country better to turn our children into test-taking automatons just so they can show scores higher than students in Shanghai?