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Education: Do International Test Scores Matter?

by Rebecca Strauss
February 1, 2013

A preschooler on his first day of school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters). A preschooler on his first day of school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).

We’ve all seen the headlines: American students are far from stellar performers on international tests. Whether it’s the OECD’s oft-cited gold-standard PISA test on math and reading, the TIMSS test on math and science, or the PIRLS test on reading, American students consistently score in the middle-of-the-pack among their peers in the rich world. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, has called such mediocre results a “wake-up call” for urgent action to reform the U.S. education system. The suggested reforms are often inspired by the highest-performers on international tests, including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Shanghai, and Finland.

But how much currency should we give international test scores?

According to the work of Eric Hanushek of Stanford University, they matter a very great deal; if Americans were testing as high on PISA as Finns, the cumulative gains to the U.S. economy could add up to $100 trillion over eighty years. He also argues that math skills—where U.S. students perform worse than reading—are most important for a nation’s productivity in a modern economy.

There are certainly benefits to comparing the quality of human capital across the world. To the extent that international labor markets transcend borders, there is more direct competition for the same jobs. Test scores may be a more sophisticated way to measure human capital than the more conventional way, which has been the number of years spent in school.

Even if we accept the current array of international tests as a good marker of education quality, questions linger about how useful the international comparisons are. The top-performing countries tend to be small and homogenous. Massachusetts and Minnesota, which are demographically similar to top-performers, also test at similarly lofty levels internationally. Asian top-performers tend to favor a high-stakes and unforgiving testing culture that many in the United States are loathe to adopt.

The United States has never been world-leader on international tests, going back to the 1960s. Yet the United States continues to have among the most productive workers and dynamic economies in the world. Japan, whose students have traditionally done well on math and science tests, has an economy that has been in the doldrums since the 1990s.

Perhaps the international tests themselves are missing the mark and testing the wrong things. Keith Baker, a retired researcher from the Department of Education, ran an analysis of international test scores from the 1960s against a whole set of country performance indicators in the intervening years, from GDP growth to individual productivity, to democratic environment, creativity, and livability. His findings are striking and counterintuitive; the countries with the highest test scores in the 1960s ended up with the lowest scores of national “success” decades later. It is well established in psychological research that an especially high IQ or being a high school valedictorian is not necessarily correlated with life success later on. In China, there is growing awareness of troubled “high-testing, low-ability” adults, who could not thrive professionally as adults but did extraordinarily well on the grueling high school examination test known as the Gaokao that determines college entry and, many believe, a student’s life prospects. James Heckman of the University of Chicago has done ground-breaking research showing that some of the most valuable skills learned in high school are less academic and more akin to personality traits, such as “stick-to-it-iveness,” optimism, and grit in the face of setbacks.

U.S. students may not score better than their East Asian peers in math and science, but surveys indicate they have higher levels of self-confidence—a trait that has its downsides, but that also correlates strongly with entrepreneurship. Countries that come out on top with the PISA test also tend to have low levels of confidence and low levels of entrepreneurship. The United States devotes more money and student time to extracurriculars and less to in-class instruction. Many point to the reversed priorities as a reason for U.S. students’ middling test scores, but it may also be a reason why the U.S. education system produces adults who are more confident in their abilities to start and run a business.

In the future, confidence may be every bit as important if not more important than math skills. Thomas Friedman has written extensively about his new equation for individual success in a highly competitive global economy: IQ< CQ+PQ. In other words, keen curiosity combined with intense passion will get you farther than your raw academic intelligence. Vivek Wadhwa, who writes regularly about what makes Silicon Valley tick, adds that “the independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks. They can think for themselves and they can innovate.”

Before the United States takes big steps to emulate high-scoring East Asian countries, it should take note of how those countries perceive their own education systems. When international test scores are released, their press often overlooks the high performance, focusing instead on the low confidence of the test takers. And in a telling move, East Asian countries are looking for ways to tone down the high-stakes testing in favor of more extracurriculars and a well-rounded student experience.

While it is important to guard against undue complacency about U.S. test scores, we should also guard against jumping to conclusions about whether the test scores represent a crisis of U.S. education.

Correction: A previous version of this blog stated that, according to Eric Hanushek’s research, “if Americans were testing as high on PISA as Finns, the U.S. economy could be $100 trillion bigger eighty years down the road.” This is incorrect. The $100 trillion figure is actually the cumulative difference in GDP over eighty years.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Curtis Valentine

    Rebecca, thanks for highlighting this most controversial debate. The use of standardized tests as the sole measure of student performance and potential will never be the answer…whether in Maryland or in Madagascar. What the tests do tell us is how well our competitors are doing. We can say that we are different than other countries but the world economy doesn’t grade on a curve. We have to compete, period. America has never done well on international exams dating back to the 1960s with little impact on our economy because we always had a monopoly on the smartest immigrants in the world to help compensate. That is no longer the case. I hope we can bring urgency to reforming public education for everyone’s sake.

  • Posted by Vasudha Seksaria

    Great article Rebecca…It is one of those Apple vs. Samsung , who is better debate! :)
    Germany and Japan are the indisputable pioneers of the modern world. Their artistry, concepts, innovation and creativity is the greatest gift of all time, period. This was followed up, by open-minded, fluid-taking-the-shape-of-the-vessel Americans. Americans for the longest time have been the envy of asian kids. Children, here, crave a wholesome education. They want extra-curricular activities, they want pop-quizzes, they want to go out to study, possibly to America, not because of lack of education in Asia. they want to go out because through osmosis, open mentality, imbibe some of the pointers that make Americans, entrepreneurs. Children in India, who go to international schools even, lack that confidence and body language of yes -I- can Americans! They come back to a protective home environment, where the bed is made for them, and the bills are payed for them. During exam season- parents even go to the lengths of offering room service. Hourly head pop-ins, timely food trays arriving, tsking about the pressure, and what not. So it is a major culture shock, when these young strapping adults, arrive in the USA. American kids, who mostly leave their parents house in their early teens, to become something, even if their start up job is that of pizza delivery boy, know the meaning of “endurance”. I cannot speak for the rest of Asia, but in India, where everything is done for the kid, and all he has to do is get good grades for a better job, how can the mind develop? They grow up to be insecure adults. They can’t make decisions on their own, they can’t sign a cheque, and the worst part is that they don’t care. They are happy working for companies. In my 24 years, I have yet to see a ground-breaking Indian or Asian innovation, from within the country. I am not speaking of the NRI entrepreneurs or the great scientists working in NASA, or those who have had a foreign education. I am talking about, has the continent, from within its regions, provided a world leader? People are quick to criticise americans about their lifestyle and society, but can they match them in punctuality, work ethic, sharp appearance, smart alec innovations? sadly, their good math and science degrees, are only capable of getting them a good job and a studio view of the central park. Americans may not be the brightest bulbs, when it comes to literal education, but are far superior in practicality. Every child is born with a winner’s attitude. An institution with a fine balance of literal and practical education has to be introduced into the system. The international tests are not enough to pin down on one’s capabilities. We have to nurture young minds into believing that yes they can! they can follow their dreams and that dreams do come true! There is nothing wrong with the fairytales- everybody loves a happily ever after. The world has to come together on this one. There should be no Asian and American conflict. the aim should be to enlighten the global youth.

  • Posted by Hari Garhwal

    A great piece by Rebecca and an equally thoughtful reflection by Vasudha. But a country’s continued relative outperformance should not be entirely equated to the work of its current generation. It can outperform due to a royalty-equivalent contributions of accumulated endowment of many prior generations who painstakingly built institutions that now might be on a path to irreversible degeneration for lack of their maintenance and lack of reverence and unwavering faith in them. So while rising countries are busy building institutions and endowments, the old spent forces, overconfident of their history, past glory, and legacy allow their institutions to degenerate. Perhaps that is how empires are built and lost. The declining Roman Empire did not lose in a day.

  • Posted by Keith Baker

    Rebecca cites my 2007 publication on the effect of test scores on the economy. I updated it in 2011 (Baker, K. (2011). High Test Scores: The Wrong Road to National Economic Success. Kappa Delta Pi Record, Spring: 116-120) using test scores for 1964, 1976, and 1980. All three tests showed the same effect on 2009 economic performance– high scores, bad news, low scores, good economy (relatively speaking).

    Most interesting, the 2005 economic data used in the 2007 article was from good times. The 2009 data (2011 article) was at the pits of the second GWB Recession. The positive effect of poor test scores on a nation’s economic performance in bad times was much stronger than in good times. In other words, in a robust economy, low scores boost national economic success, but in a recession, low scores save your ass.

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