Breaking: Semi-coherent New York Times reports international test scores!


Fumbling reporter works to Keep Script Alive: It seems like only yesterday! It seems like we were discussing the way mainstream journalists knock American students for being so dumb—while engaging in incompetent writing and analysis themselves!

In fact, it was only yesterday (click here). And sure enough:

A new batch of major international test scores has now been released. And in this morning's New York Times, reporter Motoko Rich offered this semi-puzzling account:
RICH (12/11/12): Fourth- and eighth-grade students in the United States continue to lag behind students in several East Asian countries and some European nations in math and science, although American fourth graders are closer to the top performers in reading, according to test results released on Tuesday.

Fretting about how American schools compare with those in other countries has become a regular pastime in education circles. Results from two new reports, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, are likely to fuel further debate.

South Korea and Singapore led the international rankings in math and fourth-grade science, while Singapore and Taiwan had the top-performing students in eighth-grade science. The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science.

Although the average scores among American students were not significantly lower than the top performers, several nations far outstripped the United States in the proportion of students who scored at the highest levels on the math and science tests.
The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math? Eleventh out of how many? As you can see, Rich doesn’t say! A bit later, some of her text adds to the confusion:
RICH: Fourth graders in 57 countries or education systems took the math and science tests, while 56 countries or education systems administered the tests to eighth graders. (Education systems include American states or regions like Hong Kong in China or Northern Ireland in Britain.) In reading, 53 countries and education systems participated.
It sounds like U.S. fourth-graders may have ranked eleventh out of “57 countries or education systems,” although that point is never made clear. And here's another point of confusion:

Since the concept of “education systems” remains a bit murky, where did U.S. fourth-graders rank among actual countries?

Readers are never told.

As is required by Hard Pundit Law, Rich adopts a negative framework for her report. As she starts, she focuses on the countries the U.S. “lags behind.” For our money, we’d say she may be missing the lede, especially with regard to The Greatest Educational Powerhouse Ever Seen on the Face of the Earth:
RICH: Students in Finland, which is often held up as a model education system for its teacher preparation and its relative absence of high-stakes testing, outperformed American students on all the exams. But students in countries with intense testing cultures also exceeded American students. “Some of the high-performing math and science countries have extremely rigorous testing regimes,” Mr. Buckley said.
Rich is right. Finland did outscore the U.S. on all the exams—but on most of the exams, the two countries’ scores were remarkably close, especially given a decade of fawning about Finland’s incomparable manifest greatness. By the way: Rich mentions the relative lack of testing in Finland, but she fails to mention Finland’s relative lack of low-income kids.

In such ways, conventional journalists work to Keep Script Alive.

(Concerning this topic, by Hard Pundit Law, the script must always be gloomy.)

In our view, Rich seems to be missing the story in several ways. But we will wait a day or two to cover these test scores in more detail, focusing on the way they’ve been reported.

Meanwhile, if you want to check the scores for yourself:

For math and science scores, just click this. For reading scores, click here.


  1. Bob, I am a long time reader and a long time fan. I enjoy watching you play whack-a-mole, with the worthless US media in the role of "mole". However, I often think you miss the point entirely. "Man Faithful to His Wife" doesn't sell detergent. "Man Cheats on His Wife" sells detergent. While you are right about what the media ought to be, the people who own stock in the media outlets are not at all interested in what the media ought to be. Rich writing "US very near top in education" doesn't sell detergent. "US lags behind" sells detergent.

    Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Gail Collins, etc. aren't journalists. They are detergent salespeople. As journalists, they are worthless, but as long as they keep selling detergent, they will have a forum and will even taken seriously by those who don't know any better.

    1. Detergent, OK.

      But something else is also being sold:

      Bullshit education "reform."

  2. I meant Motoko Rich. My boo-boo. (See, correcting my mistakes like real reporters are supposed to do. I haven't seen Branchero's correction of her stupid article from the other day. Anyone see if Branchero figured it out and corrected herself yet?)

  3. DBK, I agree with you, but I think you're also missing another point, which is that the corporate media drones like Motoko Rich are also helping to foster another narrative, which is that public schools don't work, mainly because of teachers' unions, so they should either be turned into (semi-privatized) charter schools or private schools outright. Funnel those tax dollars into private pockets. That's the game. It's not just what sells, but what they're trying to sell, which is neoliberalism.

  4. The powerpoint presentation by 'the commissioner' on the results seems fair-minded. Go here:

    For example, in 4th grade reading the U.S. PIRLS average is 556, much higher than the overall average of 500. As far as cross-country comparisons are concerned: the U.S. is worse than 5 countries, not measurably different from 7 countries, and better than 40 countries. That sounds good (but bad for the 'US public schools suck' narrative).