FOOLED ABOUT SCHOOLS: Fools for Finland!


Part 5—Good news outscored by script: How well did American students do on last year’s international tests?

That can’t be easily answered. In reading, American students scored very near the top of the world. Among the large nations which took part, only Russia outscored the U.S.

In reading, American students outscored the vast bulk of the world! Unless you read major American papers, where this success was largely obscured.

In math, American students did somewhat less well—and without any question, a fairly small group of Asian nations tend to outscore the world by significant margins in math. That said, here’s a surprise:

In fourth-grade and eighth-grade math, American scores were “not measurably different” from the scores of students in Finland.

We mention Finland for an obvious reason. In the past decade, this small, middle-class, unicultural nation has been all the rage in America’s low-scoring press corps. Its strong performance on international tests has been a constant source of commentary from journalists who don’t have the slightest idea what they're talking about.

That’s why you might think it would count as news when the U.S. came close to matching Finland on last year’s international tests. Indeed, Finland was walloped by some U.S. states—states which took part in last year’s testing as independent “education systems.”

In eighth grade math, nine states participated in the testing as independent entities. Some of these states simply cleaned Finland’s clock. Here’s how the average scores looked:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, TIMSS 2011
Massachusetts 561
Minnesota 545
North Carolina 537
Indiana 522
Colorado 518
Connecticut 518
Finland 514
Florida 513
California 493
Alabama 466
Massachusetts is one of our wealthier, whiter states—but it’s a glorious demographic stew as compared to middle-class Finland. But despite its larger demographic challenges, Massachusetts cleaned Finland’s clock in eighth-grade math, as did several other states among the nine which took part. And good lord:

The Bay State’s black kids outscored Finland, averaging 516 on this test! Given the perpetual gloom about our schools; given the brutal history of race in this country; given Finland’s well-deserved status as a high international scorer—you’d almost think it might count as news when scores like these occur.

If you thought that, you don’t understand the way your press corps works. In the Associated Press and the New York Times, the standard script about Finland prevailed. Here's the way the flying Finns were framed in the AP’s report:
LEDERMAN (12/11/12); American students still perform better than the global average in all subject areas, the study found, although students from the poorest U.S. schools fall short.

But the U.S. is far from leading the pack, a distinction now enjoyed by kids in countries like Finland and Singapore who outperformed American fourth-graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind their Russian, Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts in math, and trail students from Hong Kong, Slovenia and South Korea in science.
Just for the record, Finland and Singapore are very small nations (five million people apiece). And despite what that highlighted passage says, Finland didn’t outscore the U.S. by much in last year’s reading test.

In math, Finland barely outscored the U.S. at all; the two nations’ scores were “not measurably different,” according to the official reports. As a result, math was dropped from this part of the AP report. The AP only mentioned science and reading as it extended the mandated script about how worthless our students are as compared to the greatness of Finland.

The New York Times also extended the script about Finland. Finding ways to stick to script is what our big newspapers do:
RICH (12/11/12): 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.
That’s true—students in Finland did “outperform American students on all the exams.” But in math, the two nations’ test scores were “not measurably different,” despite the much larger demographic challenges faced by American schools.

The New York Times didn’t tell readers that. The glories of Finland lived on!

Our view? Given the gloom which surrounds our schools in the press, it probably ought to count as news when American students score this well on international tests. Below, we’ll show you how hard the Washington Post worked at one point to keep you from hearing the good news.

But in two less glorious American papers, reporters took a different approach to the American scores—even to the greatness of Finland! In USA Today, Greg Toppo correctly saw that the American scores just weren't all that bad.

Toppo even chided the Finns, right in his second paragraph:
TOPPO (12/11/12): USA's schools move up in international rankings

Results from a pair of new international assessments released today show that American kids are holding their own in math, reading and other subjects. In a few cases, they're actually bypassing the rest of the world.

Who knew, for instance, that Florida fourth-graders now read as well as their peers in Singapore and Finland?
Say what? Florida’s fourth-graders read as well as their peers in Finland? Toppo chided Finland a bit—and he seemed to think that an outcome like that actually counts as news.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Amanda Paulson went a bit farther. Like Toppo, she saw the American glass half full—and she tweaked Finland right out of the gate.

But a bit later on, she directly whacked the ballyhooed middle-class giant:
PAULSON (12/11/12): What's also notable is who isn't among the very top scorers—most notably, Finland.

Based largely on its strong showing in the PISA (for Programme for International Student Achievement) scores, Finland has become a focal point for a number of education experts, who believe the US should use its system as a model.

But in the TIMSS data—especially on math—Finland wasn't all that different from the US.

"Finland's scores in math are statistically a dead heat" with the US, "which shows you how fragile that reputation, which is exaggerated, is," says Mr. Loveless—who notes that Finland's eighth-grade math scores have actually declined since Finland last took TIMSS, in 1999.
Is Paulson allowed to say that about Finland? Within the scripted American press corps, the answer has long been no—and the AP and the New York Times largely stuck to the established script last week.

To their credit, silly stupid USA Today and the floundering Monitor didn’t.

Please understand: There is no formula which can extract the real news from these test scores. No formula can tell us whether the American glass was half empty or pretty darn full.

No formula can tell us what a paper should say about Finland, or if that one small middle-class nation should be mentioned at all.

But to our taste, our biggest news orgs worked rather hard to keep a gloomy old script alive as they reported these test scores. According to this gloomy old script, our pitiful schools are perpetually failing. They just don’t measure up.

How hard did the Washington Post seem to work to maintain this narrative? At one point, we chuckled as the Post withheld the good news, struggling to Keep Gloom Alive:
LAYTON (12/11/12): Several states that took the test independently scored higher than the U.S. average in eighth-grade math, including North Carolina, Indiana, Massachusetts and Minnesota. North Carolina also outscored the U.S. average in fourth-grade math. Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado exceeded the U.S. average in eighth-grade science.

Even those high performers have much ground to gain on international leaders. In Singapore, for example, 40 percent of eighth-grade students scored high enough in science to be deemed "advanced." In Massachusetts, about one-quarter of students reached that mark.
Good lord! In that first paragraph, Post readers were offered a fatuous point—several states scored higher than the U.S. average.

Duh. In any testing, about half the states will exceed the national average; the other half will score below it. Unless you live in Lake Wobegon, this will always be true.

Pointlessly, readers were told that several states exceeded the national average. And then, it was back to the gloom and the doom! Immediately, the Post offered an invidious comparison, noting that our high performing states "have much ground to gain on international leaders." As an example, we were told that Massachusetts has a long ways to go to equal (tiny) Singapore.

Here is the larger fact the newspaper’s readers weren’t told:

Except for tiny Singapore, Massachusetts students outscored every nation in the world on that eighth-grade science test! They outscored their peers in Taiwan, in Korea, in Japan and Hong Kong—the other Asian giants. They outscored their counterparts in Russia.

They even outscored Finland, which is smaller and more homogeneous than Massachusetts.

On the very test singled out by the Post, Massachusetts outscored the entire world—except for tiny Singapore. But readers of the Post weren’t offered that larger, perhaps surprising fact. Gloomily, they were told that Massachusetts didn’t come close, in one respect, to one small city-state.

Rarely has a paper worked so hard to provide the smaller, less representative fact. Rarely has a paper worked so hard to pimp a gloomy script.

Did American students do well on these tests? That is a matter of judgment. But at the AP, the Post and the Times, we’d be inclined to say that script—and gloom—prevailed.

In our view, these papers displayed rather shaky news judgment—and an enduring love for the script. On Monday, conclusions and cautions: What lessons should we take away from these and previous test scores?


  1. And Massachusetts and Minnesota are two of the most highly unionized teacher forces in the country. Whoops, I guess strong unions don't hold back educational excellence and improvements.

  2. This is an excellent post, getting to the heart of the matter. Thanks for writing!

  3. It is too bad the US media has forgotten what they should have learned in Journalism -- accurate reporting based on sound research. They are always trying to beat out their competition and fail to look for facts instead of sensationalism. Thank you for staying on top of a sensitive issue. Our Howard County, Maryland has just dropped the course reading causing their reading teachers to scramble and making them feel less than adequate. It will be interesting to watch the reading scores in 5 years, since we were once the top in the nation. Keep up the good work.

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  5. Great article. To be fair, though, urban legend, it should be said that North Carolina doesn't have teacher unions. Worth mentioning.

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