Part 2—Plus, the actual facts: Do Poland’s students achieve high scores on international tests?
Has Poland “scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time?” Do Polish students “handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance” on such tests?
The answer to all those questions is no—unless you read the New York Times or the Washington Post. In those newspapers, a Polish miracle has now been invented by two journalists, one of whom ought to know better.
We expect little from Annie Murphy Paul, a climber of a familiar type who was allowed to invent this miracle in the New York Times last month. In the paper’s high-profile Book Review section, Paul was allowed to limn Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.
In that review, Paul invented a Polish miracle. This past Sunday, Jay Mathews followed suit in a high-profile review which led page one of the Washington Post’s Outlook section.
Mathews is a well-known education reporter, a recognized national figure. In a mildly rational country, he wouldn’t have written the things he wrote about Poland.
You don’t live in that country! You live in a country with novelized news, a country the most basic facts get rearranged to make preferred stories work better. This helps explain why Mathews and Paul have now invented a Polish miracle, in which the long-suffering Soviet client state has shot to the top of international rankings in basic academic skills.
Alas! At present, Poland hasn’t “scaled the heights of international test-score rankings” or done anything like that. Do its students “handily surpass Americans’ performance?”
Actually, no, they do not.
These basic facts aren’t very important in the vast sweep of things. American schools could be much better, whatever is happening in Poland.
But for today, let’s skip the state of American schools and discuss the state of something else. Let’s discuss the truly floundering state of American journalism.
What on earth led Mathews and Paul to make the statements they made in the Washington Post and the New York Times, two of our most famous newspapers?
In fact, their conduct is very common. In modern American culture, “journalists” routinely engage in this practice. Journalists routinely embellish or invent basic facts to create a more pleasing story, a story which will advance a Preferred Elite Belief or Perspective.
At present, one such Preferred Elite Belief involves the alleged breakdown of our schools, a breakdown which is often attributed to our ratty American teachers with their infernal unions. Inventing a miracle story from Poland, Mathews and Paul work in support of that tale.
What is the actual state of our schools? The state of our schools is complex! For today, though, let’s get clear on the actual facts about Poland. And let’s marvel again at the way our high-ranking “journalists” agree to invent bogus facts.
What are the facts about Polish test scores? For starters, the facts about Poland are these:
There are three major international testing programs in which many developed nations take part. Poland takes part in all three.
Poland on the PISA
We’ll start with the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the only program Ripley cites in her highly selective book. Every three years, the PISA tests 15-year-old students in a wide range of countries in reading, math and science.
For PISA data, start here, then keep clicking.
The most recent PISA scores date from 2009. This is the testing program on which Polish kids have performed the best. But Poland was not at the top of the heap, or anywhere near it, on the 2009 PISA. Here is a sampling of scores from that year’s reading test:
Selected results, PISA reading, 2009:Korea and Finland led the pack. Poland was tied with the U.S., quite a ways back.
New Zealand 521
United States 500
United Kingdom 494
OECD average 493
Poland did outscore the U.S. in math on the 2009 PISA, by a narrow margin. At this point, a claim should be noted—Rothstein and Carnoy have claimed that the PISA oversampled U.S. kids from low-income schools in 2009.
We don’t know if that claim is true. In the course of writing an entire book which is based solely on the PISA, Ripley didn’t mention, or attempt to resolve, this ongoing dispute:
Selected results, PISA math, 2009:Again, Poland is nowhere near Korea and Finland, though it does outscore the U.S. by a modest margin. The same pattern obtains on PISA science scores from that year:
United Kingdom 492
United States 487
OECD average 496
PISA science, 2009:Those are the only data to which Ripley refers in her book. But if you read the New York Times last month, you were told, on the basis of these easily-accessible data, that Poland has “scaled the heights of international test-score rankings” and that Poland’s students “handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance.”
United Kingdom 514
United States 502
OECD average 501
Neither one of those claims is accurate, even if you restrict yourself to the PISA data. Where do people like Annie Murphy Paul come up with this low-IQ stuff?
Whatever! In assessing “the Polish miracle,” a serious journalist or author would want to look at the other international testing programs in which Poland takes part. We’ll do that for you now.
Poland on the TIMSS
Poland also takes part in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international program which tests fourth- and eighth-graders from various nations in science and math.
For TIMSS data, start here.
The most recent TIMSS results date from 2011. Poland took part in fourth grade only. These were the math results:
Selected results, TIMSS Grade 4 math, 2011Polish students did not “handily surpass Americans’ performance” on this test. The same pattern obtained in science:
Great Britain 542
United States 541
Selected results, TIMSS Grade 4 science, 2011A note on the U.S. and Finland: In both fourth and eighth grade math, American students matched the performance of Finnish students on the 2011 TIMSS. Perhaps for that reason, TIMSS results tend to disappear when obedient children like Ripley and Paul write their fatuous articles and books, for which they are well rewarded.
United States 544
Great Britain 529
That said, there's one more major international testing program in which many countries, including Poland, take part.
Poland on the PIRLS
Poland takes part in one other international testing program—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which tests fourth graders in reading. The most recent testing occurred in 2011:
Selected results, PIRLS Grade 4 reading, 2011For PIRLS data, start here.
United States 556
Great Britain 552
Annie Murphy Paul’s true belief to the side, Polish students did not “handily surpass Americans’ performance” on this test. On this test, Russia and Finland were the only two countries in the world which outscored American students.
What kinds of judgments can we reach from the results of these tests? That’s a complex question! But plainly, Poland has not “scaled the heights of international test-score rankings.” Its students do not “handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance,” not even on the PISA, where Poland achieved its best scores.
Poland is emerging from decades in the Soviet orbit. We’ll assume that the country is doing good things in its public schools.
And no, Poland’s degree of success shouldn’t matter to Americans. Presumably, our schools could be better in many ways, no matter what may be happening in Krakow, Gdansk or Lodz.
But we’re not talking about American schools today. We’re talking about American journalism. What explains the way the Post and the Times invented those fabulous Polish test scores?
Simply put, Poland doesn’t have “high international test scores,” not even on the PISA. When it comes to the public schools, why do we read invented facts in so many high-profile organs?
Tomorrow: “The Polish miracle,” a phrase from Ripley’s book