For a break from APS news, here’s an op-ed that runs in the Monday print education page that I assemble and edit each week. (Please send essays on education for consideration, 500 or 800 words. )
This piece is by Walt Gardner, who has written for the AJC before on education topics. A teacher for 28 years in Los Angeles, he writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week.
Enjoy his piece:
In the debate over education reform, the charge guaranteed to get the attention of the media is that the U.S. is losing its economic hegemony. The evidence is rankings on tests of international competition, which are offered as proof that the U.S. will not be able to compete globally. Yet a closer look leads to a far more nuanced conclusion.
The first question that should raise eyebrows is who takes the tests. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), for example, tests students who are in their “final year of school.” But the ages of students range from 17 in the U.S. to 21 in other countries. Clearly, the differences are significant, but curiously are not noted in reportage.
Then there is the matter of selecting which students from these age groups actually sit down for the test. The U.S. engages in actual sampling, while other countries are highly selective. Russia and Israel, for example, administer TIMSS to native speakers only. Switzerland gives the test to students in only 15 of the highest performing regions of the country.
Moreover, little attention has been paid to how the tests are constructed. Items that appear on the test are negotiated by the participating countries. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that countries push hard for items that will mesh closely with their curricula in order to look good in the rankings. Asian countries tend to prevail in the test preparation process, giving them a built-in advantage.
Finally, there is the role that poverty plays in the results. Among the industrialized countries of the world, the U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty, according to UNICEF. Research has shown time and again that the single most powerful predictor of student performance is poverty. And it is increasing. The Census Bureau reported in September that the share of residents in poverty climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level since 1994. The rise was steepest for children, with one in five now affected.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) serves as another example of the need to carefully read between the lines. PISA focuses on applied knowledge, rather than on school curriculum. It measures learning that has taken place since birth, but not necessarily what students learned during their previous year at school or even during their secondary school years. As a result, it’s difficult to disentangle schools effects from non-school effects.
In spite of these caveats, critics continue to maintain there is a crisis that threatens the prospects for the economy. Actually, this charge is nothing at all new. In 1983, “A Nation At Risk” sounded the same alarm. Yet the U.S. entered into a decade of the greatest economic growth in its history. Singapore’s Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Newsweek in 2006 that his country, which consistently ranks high on these tests, has an exam meritocracy, while the U.S. has a talent meritocracy. Perhaps that’s why the World Economic Forum and the Institute for Management Development still place the U.S. No. 1 in overall competitiveness.
What further calls into question the link between rankings on international tests and the economy was a study published in the International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership in April 2008. It found that the data from previous studies suggest that the relationship between student achievement rankings on international assessments of reading, mathematics and science, and a nation’s future economic growth is untenable and not causal.
The worse meltdown since the Great Depression should in all fairness put an end to dubious claims about international tests. It points clearly to social and economic policy failures having little at all to do with schools. Dishonest capital markets, lack of corporate accountability and regulatory laxity on an epic scale are to blame. This doesn’t mean that schools play no role in prosperity. On the contrary, 21st century skills are indispensable. But schools alone cannot determine how wealth created by increased productivity is distributed.
Nevertheless, schools will continue to serve as scapegoats to deflect attention away from failures in these other areas. All the more reason to view international test scores with extreme skepticism.