OUTSCORING FINLAND: Disaggregation hurts!


Part 3—Disaggregation reveals: Fairly or otherwise, Finland has begun getting bumped from the press corps’ list of “educational powerhouses.”

Don’t get us wrong! At the Atlantic, Julia Ryan still described the Finns that way when she reported the new PISA scores this week. She failed to note that Massachusetts, whose performance she ridiculed, matched the powerhouse Finns in reading and math on the most recent PISA.

(By a fairly modest margin, Finland outscored Massachusetts in science.)

At the Atlantic, Finland is still a “powerhouse.” But in the New York Times, Motoko Rich reported that Finland’s scores had declined, a statement which may be a bit misleading.

(For a start at a hint, click here. Ponder this phrase: “graded on a curve.”)

Meanwhile, how did Politico report the new PISA scores? As she started, Stephanie Simon erased the Finns from the “familiar hierarchy” of the world’s top performers.

Note her peculiar framework:
SIMON (12/3/13): U.S. students continue to perform poorly on international tests, with 15-year-olds scoring in the middle of the global pack on the latest math, reading and science tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In a familiar hierarchy, Asian countries and regions such as Hong Kong, Japan, Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea topped the rankings for the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, according to results released Tuesday morning.
Note the oddness of Simon’s basic construction. The United States “scored in the middle of the pack,” she reports. On that basis, Simon says the United States “continued to perform poorly.”

Script is powerful! Later, though, Simon abandons a script, referring to “the once widely envied Finland, which has lost considerable ground in math.”

Finland has been losing ground in math to the Asian tigers—to actual nations like Korea and Japan, to smaller city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore. That said, it still ranks near the top among the 34 OPEC nations in all three subjects the PISA tests.

For that reason, it’s instructive to see how American scores compare to those of the high-ranking Finns. How do matters look when we “disaggregate” U.S. scores? When we report the scores achieved by different parts of the student population?


Disaggregation can tell us a lot. It’s also extremely painful.

Disaggregation provides a painful look at the continuing backwash of our brutal American history. This may be why so many “liberals” refuse to do it.

For today, we’re going to look at scores from the 2011 TIMSS, continuing the process we started last week. Tomorrow, we’ll perform a bit of disaggregation concerning the new PISA scores.

There are several ways to disaggregate test scores, few of which are ever performed by our nation’s education reporters. Yesterday, we showed you how scores break down by family income on one part of the NAEP, our most reliable domestic testing program.

On the NAEP, kids from higher-income families score much better, on average, than kids from lower-income families. That said:

As far as we know, the National Center for Education Statistics provides no reliable way to disaggregate scores by family income for the TIMSS or the PISA, our major international tests.

The NCES does disaggregate TIMSS scores by race and ethnicity. Here you see a partial breakdown for Grade 8 math:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
Finland: 514
United States, all students: 509
United States, white students only: 530
On the 2011 TIMSS, white students in the U.S. outscored educational powerhouse Finland in Grade 8 math. In fact, white student matched or outscored Finland in all four tests that year. For all TIMSS data, start here:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, 2011 TIMSS
Finland: 545
United States, all students: 541
United States, white students only: 559

Average scores, Grade 4 science, 2011 TIMSS
Finland: 570
United States, all students: 544
United States, white students only: 568

Average scores, Grade 8 science, 2011 TIMSS
Finland: 552
United States, all students: 525
United States, white students only: 553
We regard those scores as revealing, instructive. Here’s why:

Finland is a small, largely unicultural nation. It has very few immigrant kids. Beyond that, Finland never created a despised minority which it brutalized for centuries.

To its eternal credit!

Almost all students in Finland are from the country’s majority culture. In the scores we’ve posted above, students from this country’s majority culture match or outscore the Finns in all four parts of the TIMSS.

Frankly, we find those scores surprising. Among our sprawling nation’s white student population, there is almost surely more poverty than there is among the Finns. Beyond that, we have fairly large regional pockets of anti-intellectualism.

Despite that, the numbers are what you see. For Grade 8 math, here’s the way white students scored in the nine states which participated in the 2011 TIMSS as independent entities:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
(For all American states, scores are by white students only)

Massachusetts 572
North Carolina 563
Minnesota 558
Colorado 544
Connecticut 543
Florida 531
Indiana 530
California 525
(Finland, all students 514)
Alabama 489
In eight of the nine states which took part as independent entities, white students—students from the majority culture—outscored Finland in Grade 8 math. In states like Massachusetts, North Carolina, Minnesota, they outscored Finland by rather large margins.

Here’s why we think this is revealing:

For the past twelve years, every ninny and his unstable uncle has flown off to miraculous Finland on the company dime. Emerging from their Helsinki hotels, these people tried to spot the miraculous, secret practices in Finland’s miraculous schools.

Test scores like those shown above suggest an obvious conclusion—there are no miraculous practices in Finland’s public schools! Within our own much-maligned schools, children from the majority culture are actually outscoring Finland.

Our schools could be much better, of course, in a wide range of ways. (Apparently, so could Finland’s.) They could do a better job teaching math. They could do a better job helping children discover the joy of the search.

They could do a better job creating a nation of avid readers. They could do a better job channeling the natural desire of children to serve, to engage.

But for children from the majority culture—for children who speak the language; for children who didn’t arrive in the country last week; for children who don’t belong to a despised minority which was brutalized for hundreds of years; for children whose sacred ancestors weren’t denied the right to know how to read by force of extremely brutal law—

Among children like those, our schools are routinely outscoring Finland! And those children constitute a substantial majority of our student population. This is not some tricked-out statistical sliver we have slickly dislodged.

Our schools’ biggest shortfalls involve the children who aren’t from that “majority culture.” And we’re sorry, but you can’t fly off to Helsinki to learn how to serve those deserving, delightful, beautiful children.

Finland has no comparable parts to its student population! It hasn’t had to solve the educational puzzle our benighted ancestors created.

Let’s be clear. Even within our majority culture, our schools are not outscoring Korea. Korean kids averaged 613 on that Grade 8 TIMSS math test.

Tomorrow, though, we’re going to show you how other parts of our student population scored on those TIMSS tests. How do we address the shortfalls reflected in those statistics, which are sometimes extremely painful?

It’s constantly amazing to see how little we “liberals” seem to care about that. Also, to see how little our “educational experts” seem to know or care.

Tomorrow: More disaggregation

Coming: Ripley, Goldstein and the “experts” on the practice of “tracking.” Also, the Common Core


  1. Expected Comments:

    1. Bob's a sexist for picking on Ms. Simon!
    2. Bob's a racist for denigrating the scores of African American kids!
    3. Substance free comment about how great Bob is
    4. Nitpick regarding some irrelevant statistical error/omission in Bob's post
    5. Complaint that Bob won't focus on Common Core/Fox News/commenter's pet topic
    6. Nonsequitur about George Zimmerman
    7. Diversion by DinC regarding Teachers Unions
    8. Inaccurate paraphrase of Bob's post followed by outrage against said paraphrase

    Can we skip these and discuss the substance of the post?
    Never mind then.

    1. YOU LEFT OUT:

      9. Go away.

      10. Please ban trolls.

      11. Pointless defense of Bob explaining what he meant to say.

      12. Compliments of writing with spam link.

      But heck, 66.6% might be passing if graded on the Finnish curve or you are a Beelzebub fan.

  2. If we were to rank Finland, Korea, and other countries on other measures than benefit from having an educated populace, such as measures of the health of their economy, their contribution to various scientific literatures, patents for inventions, novels and widely read nonfiction books, and so on, how would they stack up? Presumably the point of educating children is to prepare them to participate in their culture. Shouldn't we be examining the practices of nations that do a good job of that, based on measures of cultural and economic health?

  3. Related point from PISA -- lest it get lost or buried by right wing/DLC-type propaganda saying pre-school improvement faeds away over a few years:

    "Across OECD countries, students who reported that they had attended pre-primary school for more than one year score 53 points higher in mathematics – the equivalent of more than one year of schooling – than students who had not attended pre-primary education."

  4. Does anonymous @ 11:01am get results or what? No stupid comments yet!!! Maybe someone should copy and paste that comment on every Howler post to ward off the insanity before it starts.

    1. "No stupid comments ...."

      Except yours.

    2. Well, since over half of the pitifully few comments are as a result of the first comment, I would venture to guess that the lack of stupidity has more to do with the lack of commentary rather than the value of the first comment.
      I would further guess the cause of that is the content of the character of the post.

  5. Your point about disaggregation being painful and the substantive need to do it is correct, but liberals have valid reasons for cringing at doing so: they know perfectly well that bigots will use the data to draw conclusions that deny the history of making even literacy an offense potentially punishable by death. That history is within the living memory of many grandparents of today's students. But even though you are correct in substance, those liberals do not deserve the quotation marks conveying sarcasm.

  6. You repeatedly state "liberals" don't care about black kids. You repeatedly state black kids are part of "a despised minority which was brutalized for hundreds of years; for children whose sacred ancestors weren’t denied the right to know how to read by force of extremely brutal law—"

    You mention Hispanic students far less frequently.

    You have attempted to show, through disaggregation, how American white students lead the pack compared to white nations.

    We have no basis upon which to compare how our black students, vicitms as you state, of a brutal history, compare with tudents from predominately black countries.

    You have presented no information upon which to compare how our Hispanic students fare among students from predominately Hispanic nations internationally.

    1. Do you understand why TDH disaggregates scores?

      Why do you think it's important to compare the scores of black students in the US to students in a "predominantly black" country?


    2. Why does Somerby think it is important to compare white students in the US to students in other predominately white countries?

      why does Saomerby

    3. The reason TDH compares white students in the US to students in predominately white countries like Finland is to show the foolishness of people like Amanda Ripley who hold that Finland with its higher scores has some lesson for the US with its lower scores. Finland is a country almost culturally uniform: the majority culture is just about everybody. When you compare the scores of the majority culture in the US to Finland's, the US actually outscores Finland. The US overall score is lower because the scores of non-majority kids are lower. Finland has no comparable body of non-majority kids, so there's little to learn from Finland.

      Have you actually been reading the blog entries? How do you think you'd do on a reading test?