Epilogue—What Zakaria said: For our money, liberal reaction to the new PISA scores was often remarkably clueless.
The most remarkable liberal error involved the apparent acceptance of our nation’s new elite cult.
According to the new cult of the PISA, we should consider the PISA, nothing else, when we talk about test scores.
We shouldn’t discuss American scores on the TIMSS. Most important, those large score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP) must never be discussed.
In her reactions to the new PISA scores, Diane Ravitch seemed to buy this premise. So did Randi Weingarten, whose puzzling conduct belies her role as spokesperson for the nation’s much-maligned teacher corps.
Elsewhere, mainstream pundits advanced the key scripts of the new PISA cult. Consider what Fareed Zakaria said in the Washington Post.
Zakaria isn’t an education specialist. There is no sign that he knows very much about international testing, domestic testing or American schools in general.
There’s no reason why Zakaria should know about public schools. That said, lack of knowledge rarely stops elite pundits from offering scripted opinions.
In his column about the PISA, Zakaria made some sensible observations about the American economy. But at one point, he painted a slightly shaky portrait of American standing on international tests:
ZAKARIA (12/5/13): Diane Ravitch, a critic of educational reform, has pointed out that the United States has never done very well on international tests, and yet, the U.S. economy has done better than many higher-scoring countries. Why? Well, the United States benefits from an amazingly flexible free-market economy, a tradition of invention and entrepreneurship, a dynamic society, talented immigrants and a strong work ethic. Those strengths might outweigh poor test scores, on average.Zakaria makes several claims in that last paragraph. On the whole, he is stating the Standard Elite Pundit Narrative, the views which have been created and sanctioned within the PISA cult.
In addition, there’s increasing evidence that it takes a small number of high-achievers to generate a great deal of economic vitality…
The real story of these tests has been “the rise of the rest.” The United States has muddled along over the past few decades, showing little improvement or decline. Meanwhile, countries including South Korea and Singapore have skyrocketed to the top, and now China, Vietnam and Poland are doing astonishingly well. These countries have workers whose productivity levels have been rising in tandem with their educational achievements.
That said, how accurate are his various statements? We’d say his portrait isn’t especially accurate. but the liberal world doesn’t seem to know how to challenge this standard portrait.
Let’s examine several standard statements:
Has the United States “shown little improvement or decline over the past few decades?” This is largely true on the PISA, which only dates to the year 2000 and strikes us as a bit shaky in some of its procedures.
On the TIMSS, which dates to 1995, more progress seems to occur. Example:
In Grade 8 math, black students in the U.S. gained 46 points between 1995 and 2011. Hispanic students gained 42 points.
When nations record those kinds of gains, scripted pundits like Zakaria say those nations are “skyrocketing.” Trust us: Zakaria has never heard about those gains by American students, and “liberal leaders” don’t seem inclined to tell him.
Here's our final, most significant point about the claim that the United States is recording no progress:
On the NAEP, our widely-praised federal testing program, large score gains have been recorded over the past few decades. There’s a very good chance that Zakaria has never heard that either.
Ravitch discusses those score gains in some detail in her new book, Reign of Error. In her response to the new PISA scores, those gains on the NAEP went weirdly unmentioned.
It represents educational malpractice when Ravitch and Weingarten discuss the PISA without mentioning those large score gains on the NAEP. It represents journalistic malpractice when newspapers like the Washington Post don’t attempt to analyze the various impressions one might gain from these three major test batteries.
How about Zakaria’s claims about foreign countries? For starters, is it true? “Over the past few decades,” have countries including South Korea and Singapore “skyrocketed to the top?”
Not exactly! That statement may give the impression that Singapore and Korea have been rapidly gaining ground in the past few decades, even as the United States is said to be standing still.
In fact, Singapore and Korea have always been at the top of the pile, right from the first TIMSS testing. These countries outscore the rest of the world, but that has been true all along.
On the TIMSS, the U.S. gained 15 points on Singapore between 1995 and 2011 in Grade 8 math. Would readers imagine any such thing from Zakaria’s description, in which Singapore is skyrocketing to the top as the U.S. stands still?
Final question: Are China, Vietnam and Poland “doing astonishingly well?” Not necessarily, no.
As Zakaria surely must know, we have no nationwide scores for China. No one has any idea what nationwide scores would look like.
Is Poland doing astonishingly well? On the 2012 PISA, Poland scored almost exactly the way Canada did. We haven’t heard why that should be shocking, although it means that Poland scored better than the United States.
That's how Poland scored on the PISA. On the 2011 TIMSS, this is the way Poland scored (Poland didn’t participate at the Grade 8 level):
Grade 4 math, 2011 TIMSSWhat explains the different outcomes and rankings? Our “press corps” may examine such questions by the end of the century. In the meantime, elite pundits will recite the scripts of their cults, including the cult of the PISA.
United States: 541
Grade 4 science, 2011 TIMSS
United States: 544
As we’ve long told you, everybody praises the NAEP. No one reports what the NAEP data show.
A new cult says we should only consider the PISA when we talk about test scores. Score gains from the NAEP get thrown down a deep, empty well.
In their reactions to the PISA, Ravitch and Weingarten failed to challenge this cult last week. Questions:
What explains the wayward behavior of our big liberal stars? What explains the way the liberal world accepts such hapless behavior?