OUTSCORING FINLAND: Why don’t American students score better?


Interlude—Ravitch and Ripley debate: Why don’t American students score better on international tests—in math, let’s say?

In recent years, a small cottage industry has grown up on the left as we liberals try to explain our shortfalls away. That said, American performance isn’t anything like a “disaster,” the term used on yesterday’s Morning Joe by the elite and the clueless.

On the 2011 TIMSS, for example, our eighth-graders scored five points behind “educational powerhouse” Finland in math. They scored two points ahead of both England and Australia, 21 points ahead of New Zealand. (Many major nations didn’t take part. On the TIMSS scale, 100 points represents one standard deviation.)

At the Grade 4 level, U.S. students trailed Russia and England by one point. They outscored Germany by 13 points, Australia by 25, New Zealand by 55.

(On page 4 of Amanda Ripley’s new book, readers are told that “American kids...know far less math” than children in New Zealand. Go figure!)

Our international performance isn’t a disaster—although, in math, we lag far behind Korea and Japan. Why don’t American students do better?

Consider one explanation from Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error. There is a very strong germ of truth in her explanation, along with several errors.

In this passage, Ravitch refers to American performance on the 2009 PISA. In recent years, this type of analysis has become fairly common in liberal circles:
RAVITCH (page 62): American students in schools with low poverty—the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor—has scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. In U.S. schools where less than a quarter of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (the federal definition of poverty), the reading scores were similar to those of students in high-performing nations.
“Technically, the comparison is not valid,” Ravitch writes as she continues, “because it involves comparing students in low-poverty schools in the United States with the average score for entire nations. But it is important to recognize that the scores of students in low-poverty schools in the United States are far higher than the international average...”

Ravitch understates the problems with this comparison, which is highly misleading and essentially useless. Here’s why:

For starters, eligibility for free or reduced price lunch is not “the federal definition of poverty.” Essentially, children are eligible for reduced price lunch if their parents earn twice the federal poverty figure.

This is not a measure of poverty. No matter how many times the point is made, liberals and mainstream journalist keep misstating this point.

This brings us to the larger problem with this comparison:

Roughly half of American students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Very few schools have fewer than ten percent who qualify. Those schools tend to serve our most affluent neighborhoods. Almost surely, kids in those schools do not constitute a representative sample of non-poverty kids, or even of kids from the top half of the income distribution.

Almost surely, kids in those schools represent a very high socioeconomic slice of our student population. It’s extremely misleading to compare their scores to the scores of other nations’ entire student populations.

In her own book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley challenges this comparison, quoting an earlier, less nuanced statement by Ravitch. In our view, she understates the problems with this comparison:
RIPLEY (page 256): Ravitch has repeatedly made this claim—on television and in print. “If you look at the latest international test scores, our schools that are low-poverty schools are number one in the world,” Ravitch said at the 2011 Save Our Schools rally on the National Mall. “They’re ahead of Finland! They’re ahead of Korea. Number one. The schools that are less than 10 percent poor and the schools that are 25 percent poverty are equal to the schools of Finland and Korea, the world leaders. Our problem is poverty, not our schools.”

This is nonsense. Other countries do not have data on which students would qualify for free or reduced price lunch under U.S. regulations; that is an American policy with American definitions...So we cannot use the free-lunch data to compare different countries’ results.
In our view, Ripley understates the problem with this type of comparison. As she continues, she touches on the difficulties involved in international comparisons of poverty:
RIPLEY (page 266): Finland has less than 5 percent child poverty using one standard definition of poverty (i.e., the percentage of people earning less than 50 percent of the media income for Finland). That definition of poverty is totally different and unrelated to the criteria used to qualify kids for free or reduced-price lunch in the United States (i.e., parents earning less than 185 percent of the U.S. poverty level).
Please note: That “standard definition of poverty” is nothing like our own conventional definition of poverty. Using that standard definition, Finland has roughly 4 percent child poverty. But it may not have any child poverty at all based on our own definition.

(That “standard definition” involves a measure of income as compared to the mean. In itself, it doesn’t tell us if anyone is below the income line used in our federal measure of poverty.)

International comparisons of poverty are rather difficult. Even when it comes with disclaimers, Ravitch’s comparison is almost completely useless. That said, low income and poverty do correlate heavily with reduced academic performance in this country. On our own National Assessment of Education Progress, we can measure student performance in three separate income categories.

Here’s how eighth-graders scored in math on the 2011 NAEP. Click here, scroll to page 44:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 NAEP
Eligible for free lunch: 268
Eligible for reduced price lunch: 279
Not eligible for either subsidy: 296
On the NAEP scale, those scores represent large differences in achievement. Our country has substantial income inequality. In this country, those differences in income correlate strongly, and tragically, with achievement in school.

In the United States, low income and poverty correlate strongly with academic achievement. That said, it’s hard to make international comparisons based on these measures.

For the TIMSS and for the PISA, we don’t have the type of data we have for the NAEP. We can’t break down PISA scores in the way shown above. We don’t have data which show how our poverty kids score on the PISA. We don’t have data which show PISA scores for the three groups shown above.

We do have international scores broken down by so-called race. These scores, which ought to stir the soul, reflect our brutal racial history.

In recent years, we liberals have been clowning around with bogus comparisons involving schools with less than ten percent eligibility for lunch subsidy. Isn’t it time we stopped clowning around and learned how to talk about race?

Let’s put that another way:

Isn’t it time we stopped clowning and preening and learned how to care about race?

Tomorrow: Look who’s outscoring Finland!


  1. I don't think caring about these test scores is equivalent to caring about children in our schools.

  2. Chris Hayes and his guests, including Randi Weingarten, almost got to your position on Hayes's show last night. They still want to keep focusing on comparing national scores and how testing holds kids back. No one mentioned improvement among minority students or NAEP statistics and scores. But at least the group got past the comparison only and dealt with a variety of other reasons scores are different, such as comparative poverty levels, pre-school advantages, and, strangest of all, China only allowing test scores from one city to be included. When I heard Hayes's tease, I thought for a moment they might have you on the program. ("American students are behind students from other countries, but are they really? We'll discuss this when we return.") Perhaps some of the education mavens are reading your blog once in a while.

  3. This colorful graph shows American kids do fairly well compared to their distant cousins overseas: