VISIONS OF PISA: The liberal world fails!


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.

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.
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.

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 TIMSS
United States: 541
Poland: 481

Grade 4 science, 2011 TIMSS
United States: 544
Poland: 505
What 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.

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?


  1. Contrary to what is written here, Ravitch does report and comment on what the NAEP tests show. I have her book in front of me.

  2. Do you mean what is written here?:

    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."

    I hope you read the book more carefully that you read the blog post.

    1. She writes about NAEP all the time on her blog, and she writes about it in her book. I don't know what is wrong with Bob Somerby.

    2. As Somerby acknowledges above. Like him or hate him, I don't care, but please read the friggin' post.

  3. I don't know what your beef is with Diane Ravitch. Yes, she changed her views over the years, but so did David Brock and Michael Lind, to name two, over issues of politics. I don't see you condemning them the way you do Ravitch. My feeling is that because she has been on "the other side" and saw the light, she is more effective because she KNOWS where the "bodies are buried" and KNOWS how these reformers operate. The same is true with the credibility of Brock and Lind. They all give outsiders a perspective not available to those who have never "been there."

    1. Ravitch is a charlatan. To see why, please read below:

    2. @ hardindr: Yes, Ravithh was involved (apparently) with the suppression of the Sandia Report, as the late Jerry Bracey points out.

      However, on her blog she has stated that the Sandia researchers were right, and she was wrong.


  4. More Zimmerman please.

  5. This series has been superb, just superb.

    (As for the trolls, do get rid of them as has been suggested. They destroy a comment section and I will never comment in detail while the trolls are here. I know of no other blogger who allows trolls to persist.)

    1. 1.) how do you know he hasnt done so to certain commenters already, completely gone and so cannot protest?

      or on comment by comment basis? (which has already happened to me a number of months back on one occasion and i was making what i thought was very substantive comment, nothing at all trollish.)

    2. whatever the shit-sucker has been saying about scores is all MEGO stuff.

      (1) Scores mean very little

      (2) Even if you think they mean something, Interpreting them can be treacherous, even experienced statisticians can be tripped up.

      The Kool Aid drinkers understand nothing, but go "Amen" because the shit-sucker uses this topic for librul-bashing.

      let us stick to core topics:

      War on Gore, War on Zimmerman, liberal commentators (undeservedly) making megabucks, excruciating nitpicks.

      Bone-gnawer - STILL WAITING FOR THE EARTHSHAKING ISSUE TO BE RESOLVED - did your supreme paragon Helms turn his back on Mandela or not?

      We can take it as read that librulz always fuck up when it comes to test scores.

    3. aspiring average slobDecember 14, 2013 at 3:40 PM

      1.) (continued) if it does happen to you, please do say, or try to say, something about it, on this site or any other. dont scream and kick as it is their right to do delete (or even creepier, to alter, which also happened to me once many years ago on another site). dont make it any easier for them by being a good boy and staying quiet about it. if you do get totally banned and you were not really a troll, just a proud liberal or leftist, the site will suffer, net net.

  6. Also of note:

  7. Maybe Bob Somerby is jonesing for some of that Bill Gates money.

  8. Bob, the comment section is vile because of a few trolls. Please get rid of the trolls who only want to destroy the blog. Please stop the trolling or stop all comments if you must.

    This trolling is disgusting.

  9. Bob, because of the insane trolling that is allowed I would never tell another person I read this blog. I would be ashamed. I ask you to ban the trolls or I may just stop reading the blog entirely let alone not telling any other person about it.

    1. The trolls are awful, but why on earth would they ever cause you to stop reading the blog entirely? Just don't click through to comments.
      I almost suspect that you're a troll, suggesting that the ridiculous comments somehow make the blog not worth reading.

  10. Bob, you present an excellent, vitally needed analysis and then allow a few insane trolls to destroy what you have done. Stop this trolling, please.

  11. Bob, imagine if a member of your family were to read the trolling comments. What then?

  12. The trolling must stop. Bob makes cogent, powerful, irrefutable arguments to which the trolls reply not with reasoned analysis but name calling. I have never seen a single one of your posts refuted on the merits. Please I'm pleading with you ban the name-calling trolls. They add nothing.

  13. american commander, slobs on silly blogsDecember 14, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    "I have never seen a single one of your posts refuted on the merits."

    .>>> boulderdash my good fellow! just go thru his incomparable archives since late 2011, early 2012. his lordship would get destroyed in the comments like on every other column for a long while.

    1. american commander, slobs on silly blogsDecember 14, 2013 at 4:03 PM

      there were some real heavyweights commenting then who i guess had better things to do and stopped -- like a fight called by the ref, tko. they didnt want to seem too brutal, i guess.

    2. american commander, slobs on silly blogsDecember 14, 2013 at 4:05 PM

      or maybe they were banned. i would guess not, but its possible.

    3. You've posted at least six comments in response to this post and have yet to even address the topic. You're making an ass of yourself.


    4. The lowercase guy has been as ass for a very long time now; he didn't just start making himself one today you know!

      His opinion on what constitutes a "heavyweight" refutation is as worthless as everything else his overweening ego compels him to type...

  14. Teachers, parents, students, community leaders want to see an end to high stakes testing.

    Thousands Come Together to Support Public Education:

  15. Ravitch has to discuss the PISA scores because the test-your-way-to-higher scores [mis] used them to argue for more tests. Though by their own metric their arguments fail.

  16. "These countries have workers whose productivity levels have been rising in tandem with their educational achievements."

    A remarkably stupid statement - why can't we have better pundits? Worker productivity, which is usually the total output divided by number of hours worked, has very little to do with how hard people work or their education level - it is a matter of how much labor-saving machinery a country has. As Asian countries like China have industrialized - that is switched to making things with machines instead of by hand - their productivity has increased.

    There have to be some educated capitalists, engineers and technicians to industrialize, but most people are just switching from being peasants to assembly-line workers. You don't need an advanced degree for either.

  17. To the Kool Aid drinkers of the non-tribal bone-gnawer:

    Who wrote

    "A GUTTER RUNS THROUGH IT (PART 1)! How do you deal with a dirt-bag like Drudge? All week, we offer free lessons:"

  18. Paradoxically, high tech devices made in China, such as the i-phone, are made almost entirely, painstakingly by hand.

    China has high productivity and low incomes, since most Chinese are making virtually slave wages (also there is a large illiteracy there problem that is well hidden, I understand from people who have been there.)

  19. Here's the gist of the problem:

    American pubic education is generally pretty good. All the data, evaluated honestly, show. There has, indeed, been remarkable progress in this country for minority students who've been marginalized. Yet, an education "gap" remains, and that gap is comprised mostly of students in poverty.

    American students do better on comparative international assessments than critics like to admit. Importantly though, when international data are cited as evidence of an American public school "crisis," that data is often cherry-picked. Most salient is this: PISA test scores have liitle if anything to do with economic "competitiveness."

    Finally, far too many "journalists" in the mainstream media are spoon-fed neophytes who don't do their homework and who misrepresent

    (1) who they really are (like the "talented" Amanda Ripley, who calls herself an "investigative journalist"), and

    (2) what the true state of American pubic education is.

    Bob Somerby has been saying these things for quite some time. Rightfully so.