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U.S. test scores low. So what?

Commonweal contributor Rand Richards Cooper flags a typically blunt reaction from Diane Ravitch to news that U.S. students performed less well than kids from other countries on international standardized tests. Ravitch castigates what she calls the Bad News Industry for making a big deal of this because the United States has never, in half a century, performed much better than it did this time and, further, it probably just doesn’t matter how our kids stack up against their counterparts in Finland, Japan, or Germany.

In my recent book, Reign of Error, I quote extensively from a brilliant article by Keith Baker, called “Are International Tests Worth Anything?,” which was published by Phi Delta Kappan in October 2007. Baker, who worked for many years as a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, had the ingenious idea to investigate what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Mathematics test in 1964. He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth-the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” He found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. “clobbered the world,” with more patents per million people than any other nation. …

Never do [test proponents] explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world’s leading economy, with the world’s most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce. From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores … If they mean anything at all, [they] show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.

Ravitch can always be counted on to re-introduce rationality to the debate over education “reform,” whether via her rapid-response blogging or opinion pieces in the press. The recent book she refers to was of course reviewed last month in our pages by Jackson Lears – a review Ravitch herself called “The. Most. Brilliant. Review. of. Reign. of. Error. Ever.” [punctuation hers] If you want to know what’s being done to schools (and to kids, teachers, and communities) in the name of “reform,” it’s always a good time to read it -- maybe no more so than when the Bad News Industry is on full alert.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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What a relief to have Ravitch confirm that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. USA!  USA!  GDP!  GDP!  We're the tops, the Tower of Pisa, the Mona Lisa.  So it was in the 1960s, so it is now, and so it ever shall be, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.  


Jim, If you take my previous advice and read the book, you will see that you have committed (another) ill-informed attack on an expert in an area where your insight is not quite as substantial as a bumper sticker. So I repeat: Read the book.

Tom, I read her blog post.  It seems to stand on its own pretty well.

Anyone who thinks that educational performance has no explanatory power for what is going on in the world economy, probably lives in a world that is insulated from the effects of the world economy.   Check out where China and Germany rank in PISA scores compared to the US.  (I would add India to the list, but it appears India doesn't participate in PISA).  Then compare GDP growth over the last 10 years for those three countries. Then report back.  Or, if you happen to be in the area, drive into Detroit, get out of the car, and look around.

Btw, I've been a teacher in a large school system.  Not that it makes me an expert in education, nor that one needs to be an expert in order to tell when a public school system is broken, but it is just barely possible that my opinions on education are rooted in things beyond bumper stickers and blog posts.

Great post but I do not understand how the first paragraph connects with the last.  If the PISA scores bear no correlation to actual economic and cultural outcomes, then what we need to be doing is revisting the methodology based on desired outcomes of our education system.

According to your logic, does in not follow that USA schools are in fact producing enviable outcomes. At issue, is the measures not the education system.

I agree that the USA does, in fact, rank highly on a great many desirable determinants that many countries should emulate. Although, on other markers poorly.

But, specifically, as far as standardized testing, we need to look at the utility of education in terms of outcomes and in that light the test scores need to be read contextually. The problem is that standardized tests like PISA or EQAO (in Ontario) are taken at face value with very little analysis of other things that schools are or should be doing to produce citizens, entrepeneurs and other things.

Bottom line, there are many markers and criteria for outcomes and using only one as evaluative is hugely problematic. But because these measurements are quantitative and cover large samples they take on the veneer hard scientific data to the exclusion of other measurements.

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