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.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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