FOOLED ABOUT SCHOOLS: Science and math!


Part 3—Let’s look at the rest of the record: Last year, the United States took part in the PIRLS, a major international assessment of fourth-graders’ reading skills.

The PIRLS is administered every five years. Last year, about fifty other nations took part—and U.S. fourth graders pretty much kicked major keister.

That said, you’d have a hard time learning that fact from reading our major newspapers. How did American fourth graders do in reading?

They did this well:

American fourth-graders outscored their peers in Canada, England, Germany and France; each is a large, well-known nation. They also outperformed their peers in Spain, Italy, Australia and Taiwan—four other rather large nations. (Technically, Taiwan is still part of China.)

They outscored almost every smaller European nation, including such lights for the world as Ireland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden and Norway.

They outscored Israel and New Zealand. They outperformed The Czech Republic and The Slovak Republic. The outperformed Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Lithuania and Poland. They bested their peers in Portugal and Belgium (Flemish region only).

This doesn’t mean that U.S. fourth graders did as well as they might have done. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great deal of room for improvement in basic skills. (And in creativity. And in enjoyment.)

But good God! U.S. fourth graders outscored the bulk of the world on this latest reading test. Especially given the heavily-scripted doom and gloom about our horrible failing schools with their hopelessly selfish teachers, you’d almost think it would have counted as news when the man bit the dog in this surprising fashion.

That story might have counted as news—in a world where the big newspapers didn't struggle to conform to the views of the billionaires.

American students kicked the ass of most of the developed world! And yet, when the AP discussed the latest test scores, here’s how its news report started:
LEDERMAN (12/11/12): American fourth-graders are performing better than they were four years ago in math and reading, but students four years older show no such progress, a global study released Tuesday revealed.

Although the U.S. remains in the top dozen or so countries in all subjects tested, the gap between the U.S. and the top-performing nations is much wider at the eighth-grade level, especially in math.
Speaking of problems with basic skills, you might get the impression from that report that eighth graders were also tested in reading. (And that they badly trailed the world's top-performing nations.)

If you got that impression, you were misled; there was no testing in eighth grade reading. As U.S. fourth graders improve their skills, the AP keeps lagging behind! Meanwhile:

“The U.S. remains in the top dozen or so countries in all subjects tested?” That statement certainly isn’t wrong. But a person might feel that it’s misleading or perhaps under-informative.

But then, a reader might also have gotten a false impression from reading the Washington Post. Here how its news report started:
LAYTON (12/11/12): Students across the United States have made some gains but continue to lag behind many of their Asian counterparts in reading, math and science, according to the results of two international tests released Tuesday.

U.S. fourth-graders' math and reading scores improved since the last time students took the tests several years ago, while eighth-graders remained stable in math and science. Americans outperformed the international average in all three subjects but remained far behind students in such places as Singapore and Hong Kong, especially in math and science.
From that opening paragraph, a reader might get the impression that American students “continue to lag behind many of their Asian counterparts in reading.” Based on this latest testing, we’d have to say that is pretty much wrong.

Do American students “continue to lag behind many of their Asian counterparts in reading?” Only fourth graders were tested in reading. These are the only five entities American kids lagged behind:
Entities which outscored the U.S. in fourth-grade reading:
Hong Kong, Russia, Finland, Singapore, Northern Ireland
That's it! Only two Asian entities are involved—and as small, wealthy city-states, they aren’t exactly “counterparts” of the United States. (Hong Kong is now part of China.) In fact, the United States was outscored by only one large nation—Russia—even as it outscored such large nations as Germany, England, Canada, France, Australia and even Taiwan.

The U.S. was also outscored by one small European nation, Finland. And by Northern Ireland, a very small part of Great Britain.

Russia is a large, well-known nation. The other four entities which outscored the U.S. have a combined population of twenty million. Otherwise, U.S. fourth-graders outscored the rest of the world!

To us, that's a bit of a man-bites-dog story, given the perpetual gloom about U.S. schools, with their ratty teachers and bumbling kids, which gets pimped on a regular basis by the mainstream press corps.

Was something wrong with those news reports? Did they misstate (or withhold) any basic facts? Was their overall emphasis wrong?

A few basic facts may have been misstated; others may have been withheld. Regarding the overall emphasis of those reports, we’re dealing with matters of judgment. Along with the reading results from the PIRLS, these newspapers were also reporting new scores from the TIMSS, which tests fourth- and eighth-graders around the world on math and science.

On the international stage, American kids don’t do as well in eighth grade as they do in fourth. And they don’t do as well in math and science as they do in reading. But even when it came to the TIMSS, we’d have to say that the gloom was overstated a tad in several major news reports, in line with the well-established plutocrat theme that our ratty teachers and our failing schools are just no goddamn good.

How well do American students score in math and science? Not as well as a person might like—although you may be surprised by some of the breakdowns in scores which we'll start reviewing tomorrow.

That said, U.S. fourth graders outperformed most of the world in science. Here is the most simple-minded breakdown of their performance on last year’s TIMSS:
Grade 4 science, TIMSS 2011:
The United States was outscored by (full list):
South Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan, Russia, Taiwan

The United States outscored (partial list):
Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Hungary, Sweden, Slovak Republic, Austria, Netherlands, England, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Croatia, Australia, Serbia, Belgium (Flemish region), Spain, Poland, New Zealand, Norway
In this case, U.S. fourth graders were outscored by their peers in three major Asian nations, and by their peers in Singapore. They were also outscored by Russian and Finland—but they outscored the rest of the world!

American fourth-graders outscored Germany, England and Australia. (France did not take part in this test.) Presumably, they would have outscored Canada. Ontario and Quebec took part in the testing as regions; the U.S. outscored both.

In fourth grade math, the U.S. did a tad worse—although, in the breakdown shown below, they only trailed England and Russia by the slimmest possible margin. Almost surely, the U.S. would have outscored Canada. Three large provinces took part in the testing, and the U.S. outscored all three:
Grade 4 math, TIMSS 2011:
The United States was outscored by (full list):
Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Ireland, Belgium (Flemish region only), Finland, England, Russia

The United States outscored (partial list):
Netherlands, Denmark, Lithuania, Portugal, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Slovak Republic, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Spain
England and Russia outscored the U.S. by one point on the TIMSS scale. According to the official report from the NCES, these scores are “not measurably different.”

(Finland outscored the U.S. by four points. Again, “not measurably different.”)

On this test, we see a basic pattern emerge, a pattern which tends to get muddled in our myopic, gloomy education reporting. Here is that basic pattern:

In math, Asian nations currently tend to outscore the rest of the world! In our myopic reporting, readers get told that the Asian tigers outscore the United States. That’s true, of course. But it may obscure the larger picture, which we’d summarize thusly:

On this particular math test, the Asian tigers outscored the U.S.—and the U.S. outscored almost everyone else. In essence, U.S. fourth graders matched the performance of Russia and England while outscoring Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain and the vast bulk of boutique Euro nations. (Again, France didn’t take part.)

We’ve now reviewed all fourth-grade scores from the 2011 testing. Essentially, U.S. fourth graders outscored the vast bulk of the world in reading; except for the Asian tigers, they matched or outscored almost all nations in math and science. We’ll guess that many people would be somewhat surprised by this, given the way international test scores get treated in the mainstream press.

On the eighth-grade level, United States students don’t rank quite as well—although fewer nations took part in the eighth-grade testing. On the most simple-minded basis, here’s how things looked in eighth-grade math—although the scores of Israel, Finland and the U.S. were “not measurably different:”
Grade 8 math, TIMSS 2011:
The United States was outscored by (full list):
South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, Israel, Finland

The United States outscored (partial list):
England, Hungary, Australia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, Ukraine, Norway
Here too, American students were outscored by the Asian tigers (plus Russia), tied or outscored everyone else who took part. (The scores of all these nations were “not measurably different:” Israel, Finland, the United States, England, Hungary, Australia, Slovenia, Lithuania.)

Here's your eighth-grade science:
Grade 8 science, TIMSS 2011:
The United States was outscored by (full list):
Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, Slovenia, Russia, Hong Kong, England

The United States outscored (partial list):
Hungary, Australia, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Sweden, Italy, Ukraine, Norway
In this case, the following scores were “not measurably different:” England, the United States, Hungary, Australia, Israel. American students outscored their counterparts in Quebec and Ontario, though the scores were “not measurably different.”

Did news reports in our major newspapers take a sensible approach to this brace of international test scores? That is a matter of judgment. In our view, the AP really had its thumb on the scale; it tipped its work toward mandated gloom and doom while obscuring some overall patterns. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some similar tilting by the Washington Post, which kept stressing the nations which outscored the U.S. (and some of its states), while omitting significant data which cut in the other direction.

Where did the AP perhaps mislead readers? Along with the points we’ve noted in the past two days, consider again this gloomy passage from its news report:
LEDERMAN: 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.
The emphasis falls on smaller number of nations we trailed, not on the larger number of nations we surpassed. In the highlighted passage, the AP reports the greatness of two small nations—two small nations with ten million people between them.

From the American perspective, this is gloomy work. In particular, note the highly conventional emphasis on the greatness of Finland.

Within the press corps’ spin machine, Finland has been pimped for years as a great embarrassment to the U.S.—as the educational giant from which we should be taking our cues.

In that passage, the AP extended that script—a script which has never made any real sense due to Finland’s status as a small, middle-class, unicultural nation. But uh-oh! On the tests from 2011, Finland did little to separate itself from the U.S.!

The AP was still pimping Finland’s greatness. But was that widely ballyhooed greatness displayed on this new set of tests?

In much more perceptive news reports, USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor specifically noted the failure of Finland to separate itself from the U.S. in these recent tests.

We agree with the news judgment displayed by those two papers. Especially given the past propaganda, we think that was the real story here concerning the performance of Finland—although the AP, still embracing the script, continued to pimp Finland’s greatness.

Tomorrow, we’ll compare the U.S. to Finland on these recent tests. We’ll even “disaggregate” American scores—and we’ll look at the performance of certain states which took these tests on their own, as Ontario and Quebec did.

We think you may be surprised by some of the scores we show you. If you are surprised by the data we show you, that may mean that you’ve been misled by the press corps in the past. It may even mean that you were misled as recently as last week!

American students kicked the keister of most of the world on last year’s PIRLS reading test. Our questions:

Did you learn that news, or get that impression, from reading our major newspapers? Should you have learned that news? Why the heck weren’t you told?

Tomorrow: Outscoring Finland!

Taking a look at the record: To examine TIMSS data, just click here. From there, you're on your own.


  1. The main information which has been withheld in all the reports I have seen is what kind of school system the various countries have - public or private, and if public, how centralized? Has Singapore gotten its superior results through home schooling? This is what is vital to know how to proceed if we want to improve US schools. Why should the US be moving to privatized schools if that does not produce better results? The question never actually seems to be asked in the US media and the right-wing assumptions are taken for granted.

    Also there is no information on inequality and how this might affect test results. Actually the correlation of test results with economic status is rarely discussed in reports on US test results.

    Granted reports so far have been mostly bulletins just giving results, but if reporters are not going to make the effort to look into these other things they should omit the throwaway comments about the meaning of the results.

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