James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Our Test Scores Are In

by James M. Lindsay
December 7, 2010

The results for the most recent Program on International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests fifteen-year-old students on math, reading and science, are out.  Once again, U.S. students finished in the middle of the pack, with their best finish being 17th place in reading.  Or if you prefer to see your glass as half full, their worst finish was 31st in math.

The big news, though, is that students from Shanghai tested off the charts, easily surpassing the second-place finisher in each category.  The test results will undoubtedly get big play in the next few days—the New York Times put it on the front page today—and spark a lot of hand-wringing here in the United States.  But before we have another round of op-eds lamenting America’s decline, five points are worth keeping in mind.

1.  Shanghai’s scores are impressive, but they likely aren’t representative of China as whole. Educational opportunities are significantly better in Shanghai than in much of the rest of China, especially in the countryside.  So if PISA had tested a representative sample of Chinese fifteen-year-olds, China’s scores would be likely much lower, and we would be spared the China-is-rapidly-pulling ahead stories we are bound to hear.

2.  There is nothing new here. U.S. students have been middling performers on these international standardized tests for three decades now.  The U.S. economy remains remarkably innovative and inventive, the current economic downturn notwithstanding.

3.  U.S. students scores have held steady in math and reading and improved in science. In the 2006 PISA, U.S. students scored 489 out of 600, which put the United States below average among industrialized nations.  This time around U.S. students scored 502 out of 600, placing them about average.  So things are not getting worse, which is good news.

4.  PISA scores say something, not everything. Math, reading, and science tests reveal only part of the story about ability.  We test for these skills because we can measure them.  Other attributes of ability such as creativity and imagination can’t be measured, so we don’t test for them.  But they remain critical skills and at least some of the countries that do well on PISA want to unlock the secret of how American schools encourage creativity and imagination.  As Singapore’s former minister of education told Fareed Zakaria, “We know how to train people to take exams.  You know how to use people’s talents to the fullest.  Both are important, but there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well, like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.”  Overreacting to the PISA results increases the chances we end up like talent evaluators for the National Football League who spend so much time fixated on measurables such as 40-yard dash times that they fail to notice whether players can play the game.

5.  The hand wringing over PISA will be most intense where we need it least–affluent suburban school systems. I’m not worried about how schools in the upper half of the distribution are doing.  Watching my four teenage children and their friends navigate high school, I can safely say they take more challenging courses than I ever did, they have more homework than I can remember doing, and they feel much more pressure from their teachers to excel on standardized tests.  (No one in my high school in the late 1970s ever took an SAT prep course.)  My concern lies with schools in the bottom half of the distribution.  The high school graduation rates say it all.  Only three of four white students graduate from high school, and slightly more than half of black and Hispanic students.  That’s a lot of talent we could be developing.  It’s a problem we need to fix regardless of how we do overall on PISA-style tests.

(Photo: A primary school classroom in Shanghai.  Aly Song / courtesy Reuters)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Pappas

    Is PISA “a Sputnik wake-up” or are international comparisons invalid. Rather than wade into that debate, I’d rather look more closely at the questions in the PISA test and what student responses tell us about American education. You can put international comparisons aside for that analysis.

    Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests?

    I focus on a sample PISA question that offers insights into what American students can (and cannot do) in my post “Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students” http://bit.ly/eChNoY

  • Posted by James M. Lindsay

    Thank you, Peter, for the link. No, I don’t think PISA is a “Sputnik moment.” We have seen these test results before. I also don’t think international comparisons are invalid. I just don’t think they tell you everything you want to know.

    You identify the question that matters: Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? The answer to that question depends upon which students you are talking about. We have a lot great elementary, middle, and high schools in this country, along with a lot of great teachers. My kids have been luck to attend a number of them. But we as a country are failing too many of our kids. That would worry me even if on average American students tested as well as their counterparts in Finland, Singapore, or Shanghai.

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