Supplemental: Kevin Drum’s breakthrough idea breaks through!


Jay Mathews does it again:
Kevin Dum has done what can’t be done. He’s had an idea break through.

It happened in Sunday’s New York Times, on the front page of Sunday Review. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were discussing the factors which may undermine children’s healthy development:
KRISTOF AND WUDUNN (9/14/14): Within four weeks of conception, a human embryo has formed a neural tube, which then begins to produce brain cells. As the brain is forming, it is shaped by the uterine environment in ways that will affect the child for the rest of his or her life. A mother who drinks alcohol may leave her child with fetal alcohol syndrome or, less serious, fetal alcohol effects...

Children with fetal alcohol effects account for 1 percent of births; 20 percent of births in America are to mothers who smoked during pregnancy. These babies have smaller head circumferences on average, and because nicotine increases the testosterone in the woman's uterus, some theorize that this may lead to a greater penchant for aggressiveness, particularly among sons. Patricia A. Brennan of Emory University found that when a mother smoked a pack a day during pregnancy, her offspring were more than twice as likely to be violent criminals as adults.

Likewise, when a pregnant woman is exposed to lead from old paint or from air pollution, her fetus absorbs it in ways that impair the development of the brain. Some research suggests that the rise of crime in the mid-20th century may have been caused in part by the increasing presence of lead in the environment, and that one factor in the decline in crime from the 1990s on was the phasing out of lead from gasoline (and thus from air pollution) beginning two decades earlier.
Hay-yo! Maybe it came from somewhere else. We’ll assume that Drum made this break through, and that is quite an achievement.

Given the way our journalism works, it’s almost impossible to make an idea break through. We think we understand this fact about as well as anyone does.

Just consider what Jay Mathews wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post.

We share the old school system tie with Mathews, who we like but have never met. Despite that fact, for no known reason, he wrote what follows, in an interesting piece about the culture of Chinese schools:
MATHEWS (9/14/14): Critics of American schools use the PISA results to ridicule U.S. students as addled optimists. They have more confidence in themselves than Asian students despite their lower scores.

Zhao (pronounced Jow) is not so admiring of the ancient system that has produced such Confucian modesty, having grown up with it himself in Sichuan province. Chinese authoritarian education—which has influenced nearly all Asian countries—has for thousands of years been telling students "if they cannot succeed, they have only themselves to blame," Zhao says. "This is an excellent and convenient way for the authorities to deny any responsibility for social equity and justice and to avoid accommodating differently talented people."

To those of us who admire the respect for teachers we find in Asian students, Zhao points out that it is not necessary for success in school. Students in Norway and Sweden tend to blame their teachers much more but do fine on the PISA.
The highlighted point is a minor part of Mathews’ essay, which is well worth reading. But how long can this go on?

Critics of American schools don’t just “use the PISA results to ridicule U.S. students as addled optimists.” Advocates of various types of “reform” use PISA results to denigrate American students and schools in a general way.

This has been extremely common over the past decade. The idea that American kids stink on the PISA has played an outsized role in misleading discussions of our hopeless schools, our worthless kids and their good-for-nothing teachers, what with their fiendish unions and all.

Along comes Jay to say, in passing, that “students in Norway and Sweden do fine on the PISA.”

That isn’t exactly wrong, but below, you see the relevant scores. Warning!

By a very rough rule of thumb, 35 points is said to equal one academic year on the PISA scale. Some score differences on this chart are therefore quite minor:
Average scores, PISA reading, 2012
Norway 504
United States 498
Sweden 483

Average scores, PISA math, 2012
Norway 489
United States 481
Sweden 478

Average scores, PISA science, 2012
United States 497
Norway 495
Sweden 485
If students in Sweden do fine on the PISA, students over here do better. Norwegian kids and American kids pretty much score the same.

And yes, those are the averages for all American kids, not just those from the majority population.

To access all data, start here.

None of these countries are world-beaters on the PISA. That said, we’re the country whose benighted ancestors spent three hundred years trying to eliminate literacy from one whole part of our population. And we’re the country with the massive inflow of deserving kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.

(Sweden has more immigration than many of us might think.)

The United States is not a super high scorer on the PISA. American kids tend to score better on the TIMSS/PIRLS, the other major international test battery.

For that reason, TIMSS/PIRLS scores are routinely disappeared by people funded by Bill Gates, the garage band genius of billionaire educational policy. And let’s face it—in education, virtually everyone is funded by Bill Gates.

That said:

We have no idea why Mathews would have said what he did about Norway and Sweden and the PISA. There seems to be an unending appetite within the press corps for statements which are false or misleading about student test scores, domestic and international.

We’ve tried and tried and tried and tried to encourage journalists to create a more balanced understanding of the ways American kids score on international tests. Nothing will ever stop the press from furthering the sense that everybody in the world outscores our American kids.

This Sunday, Kevin Drum’s idea broke through. We’d love to see it get more attention.

In a minor but unrelenting way, the flow of misleading test scores continued. To all appearances, a more accurate sense of American test scores will simply never break through.

To review all the date, click here.

Drum’s idea and our rising test scores: According to Kristof, some research suggests that the decline in crime has been caused by the phasing out of lead from gasoline and thus from the air.

In a similar way, some people have suggested that the rise in American test scores over the past several decades is tied to lead abatement. But how sad!

Since you aren’t allowed to know that American test scores have been rising, no one will ever speculate about such a thing in the Times.

The American press corps jealously guards several major secrets. The rise in test scores in recent decades is the story they seem most determined to make sure nobody hears.


  1. Ah yes. Trolling for attention from Uncle Drum -- the last blogger left who will throw you a bone -- while returning to the familiar tune of crying over lack of coverage over those remarkable test score gains.

    Bob, it's been months since you've visited this subject. Obviously, you don't care very much either.

  2. Gee, Bob. I clicked on your PISA link, found "Trends in U.S. Performance" and found the following:

    2003 -- 483
    2006 -- 474
    2009 -- 487
    2012 -- 481

    2006 -- 489
    2009 -- 502
    2012 -- 497

    2000 -- 504
    2003 -- 495
    2006 -- N/A
    2009 -- 500
    2012 -- 498

  3. You must be a stranger here. The scores that have increased are not the PISA, that's why the so-called critics use the PISA instead of the other test. That has been explained repeatedly.

    1. Yes, I am new and also confused.

      The blogger talked of rising test scores. He cited only PISA data. He linked only to PISA data.

      And I am now supposed to ignore PISA data because they don't support the notion of "rising test scores"?

    2. You are supposed to go back and read the post more carefully, noting where he talks about why PISA is used in place of Timms/Pirls. Then you can go to the archives and read the many posts about rising test scores on the tests used for longitudinal US comparisons, not taken by other countries.

      No single post on any blog is standalone, especially not on a complex issue. It is silly to expect them to be, especially on a technical subject.

    3. "And I am now supposed to ignore PISA data because they don't support the notion of "rising test scores"?"

      You get the picture quickly Anonymous at 6:58!

      You are now being given the commentary treatment by a "Fan O'BOB." You are told you are not a good reader, and the reasons why what seems to be a fallacious argument from Somerby are hidden deep withing the archival bowels of the blog.

      Somerby uses PISA here because it suits his purpose; the reporter used that test but refers to countries with which the USofA is competitive. Therfore PISA is fine to cite.

      When the reporter uses countries with which the US does not do so well, like Korea and Finland, blogger Somerby like to trot of PIRLS and TIMMS. Sometimes, when the comparison is to countries like Poland, which has surpassed us on PISA, Somerby throws of test scores from selective years or simply makes up combined test scores which are non existent.

      The bottom line is that Somerby prefers to use lower grade(4th and 8th) test scores on international and domestic tests, generally because Americans do not show progress once their kids reach high school. And he can think up any number of non existent and or bogus reasons to do so.

      You however, having been spared that to date due to a fixation of game show host homes and football follies, found the reason quickly and expressed it perfectly.

      You are supposed to ignore PISA data when they do not support the meme of Bob Somerby.

    4. Pisa permits international comparison but not longitudinal state by state comparison within the us. NAEP is better for that. Other countries don't take the NAEP.

      At this point, no tests are showing improvement in critical thinking, which is what PISA supposedly measures, even after college. There is controversy about what constitutes critical thinking and how to measure it, which is another reason not to take PISA scores seriously when they don't show the improvement seen on NAEP, Timms/Pirls. This isn't about Somerby playing games with the stats but about trolls willfully ignoring things that have been explained many times.

    5. You are also aware, are you not, that there is a whole raft of nationalized testing besides NAEP.

      You are also aware of the scientific principle that using one set of results from one test that can't be replicated in other tests tends to negate the thesis, aren't you?

    6. "Pisa permits international comparison but not longitudinal state by state comparison within the us."

      Now that's interesting, because I also found a heading under the link Bob sent us to entitled "Trends in U.S. Performance."

      But since that data shows no appreciable gain in U.S. performance in any subject, naturally we will choose to dismiss that data rather than admit that the results we found on our preferred standardized test weren't replicated.

      Bottom line: Both the NAEP and the PISA prove nothing by themselves, one way or the other, concerning gains made in American education. And it is the very crime of fudging statistics to prove one's case to pretend that they do, especially since neither the NAEP or PISA purport to measure what Bob thinks they are measuring.

    7. KZ, this paragraph is a pack of lies. Stop pretending to be new readers with sincere questions.

    8. deadrat, stop pretending to be all the anonymous voices rushing to Somerby's defense.

    9. 10:35 why not simply accuse us of being Bill Gates?

      Or conversely, allow me to accuse you of being SockPuppetBOB.

      We could then say, "You certainly do a good job of dumbing down the writing to mask your identity."

      See, isn't it silly to make false accusations?

    10. Once again, KZ posts a question so he can pretend to answer it.

  4. "No single post on any blog is standalone."

    OK, so when a blogger closes a post with a statement like this: "The rise in test scores in recent decades is the story they seem most determined to make sure nobody hears."

    . . . it is unfair to expect him in that post to support it with evidence of either a rise in test scores or a vast media conspiracy to prevent us from hearing that news.

    Instead, we are required to comb through 16 years worth of archives to discover what the blogger really means and for the evidence to support it.

  5. tl;dr:

    With some rare exceptions, media continue to selectively use int'l testing to support the big (but wrong) story of declining US education.

    With no exceptions, ZzzzzzK is just another douchebag troll.

    1. And Bob continues to cherry-pick through his favored tests to show that nothing is wrong, we can continue to educate kids just like we did in the 19th century. Line up in in desks in a classroom for eight hours a day and have an adult drone on.

    2. Where has Somerby said this, ever?

    3. Oh, I dunno. In about every post that mentions the vile, evil Bill Gates throwing money around into research into best educational practices?

      Why do we need such things as "Common Core"? American schools are doing just fine, stuck as they are in the 19th century model.

    4. The negation of "our schools are failing" is not "our school are fine." Back to whatever grade you flunked.

    5. The virtual removal of lead from the environment seems to me to be the big story, assuming the blogger is correct about recent academic trends.

    6. You are correct deadrat. The negation of our schools are failing could also be "our schools are only failing a little bit, and not nearly as bad as you say."

      But then again, our blogger makes clear his argument when he searches high and low for any evident of the remarkable gains our kids are making with which to build his vast media conspiracy of silence upon.

    7. TDH doesn't have to search "high and low" for evidence against the claim that our schools are universal failures whose students' test scores have been dropping.

      And his thesis isn't that schools are just fine and facing only "a little bit" of problems.

      Do you even read what he writes? Or isn't that necessary for you?

    8. His thesis is that the media ignores evidence to the contrary that certain age groups' academic performance is improving rather than worsening could also represent support for his overarching thesis the media is simply incompetent. However, it is not delusional to extend his overarching thesis to include the conclusion that a function of this press incompetence serves the interest of for-profit education promoters. For example, note the connection between Wapo and Kaplan.

  6. "By a very rough rule of thumb, 35 points is said to equal one academic year on the PISA scale."

    How rough is "very rough" and who is saying this?

    1. Thanks for asking Anon. @ 10:27

      We have seen reference to 39 points equaling a year of schooling on PISA before. We, at a pace equal to BOB's presentation of the Houses of Journalist County, are looking for the OCED source of this claim to evaluate it. We have not found the document or study where the claim originates yet.

      We would imagine it has the same verification problems the "10 point rough rule of thumb" has in the NAEP. Simply put, unless you test the kids a year younger and a year older than the one's given the PISA, you can't relly say how many points represents a year's worth of progress. And you have to do it for each subject matter. The "ten point rule" BOB cites for NAEP at one time may have been pretty close to a year's progress in reading at the 8th grade level. It was never accurate for math, which is the score subject that BOB has taken to citing most often lately.

    2. That isn't exactly what your cited source says is the difficulty with validating the rule of thumb. Further, "accuracy" is not an all or nothing question, since all measurements of human behavior are probabilistic and have error margins. Calling the rule of thumb inaccurate is meaningless, especially when it is stated up front to be "rough," as has always been the case.

    3. Is anyone saying that Bob's rule of thumb is inaccurate?

      Or are they saying he pulled it out of his ass?

      But hey, you go ahead and believe Bob when he claims that "some" say there is indeed a "very rough rule of thumb".

      And you go right ahead and not question him when he gives you a very specific number for this "very rough rule".

      By all means don't ask him who "some" is or how "rough" 35 points = 1 year could be. Or where he got such a preposterous notion.

  7. OMB (Hay-Yo! Remembering Ripley and the Polish Miracle)

    This post and some comments bring memories of Boxcar BOB's greatest hits to mind.

    We are proud to add the new refrain "Hay-yo!" to the ditties we can't help but hum as we Hee-Haw along with BOB (you remember Hee Haw's debut? BOB was in Cape Cod with Al Gore before Meredith Vieira popularized its scruffiness).

    BOBfans have told readers commenting here they need to go back to the archives to get better info on the problems with PISA.

    So let's take BOBfan's advice and go back less than a year, to September 28, 2013 to be exact, when BOB told one of his greatests fibs (which we place in bold and exposed at the time):

    Sayeth the OTB:

    "In the talented Ripley’s scam-ridden book, “the Polish miracle” (Ripley’s phrase) is said to be a miracle of improvement. But from 2003 to 2009, American students showed more improvement on the PISA’s three tests than Polish students did.
    (Ripley ignores results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, two other major international tests. Results from the 2012 PISA have not yet been released.)"

    Well, in the year that has passed, the 2012 scores have been released. Bob showed you some in this post. We copy and paste them below. But we have added those little miracle workers, the Poles, to the mix. BOB, we are sure, would have gotten around to updating this since he spent at least a half dozen posts last year debunking the "Polish Miracle" as a press invention.

    Average scores, PISA reading, 2012

    POLAND 518
    Norway 504
    United States 498
    Sweden 483

    Average scores, PISA math, 2012

    POLAND 518
    Norway 489
    United States 481
    Sweden 478

    Average scores, PISA science, 2012

    POLAND 526
    United States 497
    Norway 495
    Sweden 485

    A year ago BOB asked this question concerning Polish PISA scores.

    "You might almost think you’re getting conned. But why would Ripley do that?"

    We wonder if the same question could be posed about someone else?
    We would also wonder how many years the Poles are ahead of US students. Roughly. Using our thumbs. But, being from Doom, we have no thumbs.

    1. Hmmm, by the "very rough rule of thumb" that Bob applies to PISA scores, those Polish kids are a full year ahead of U.S. kids. In every subject.

      And interesting how a year ago we could measure "gains" by U.S. students on the PISA, but in the intervening year, we can't.

    2. You aren't applying the NAEP rule of thumb to PISA scores are you? The tests have different scales.

    3. I am applying Bob's own "very rough" PISA scale -- 35 points = 1 year -- to the data before me.

    4. You are, Anon. @ 2:10 violating the middle finger corollary to the BOB rules of rough thumbing.

      One can use the rough rule for two things: 1) to show American progress, especially black student progress. 2) to show there are gaps caused by centuries of stamping out literacy by whites and low vocabulary negligent mothering bu blacks.

      If you have any other purpose, there is no rule, just douchebaggery of the trolliest order.

    5. There is the broader question of what purpose do "rules of thumb" let alone "very rough rules of thumb" in serious statistical analysis.

      To me, a "rule of thumb" is something that is generally true, but with many exceptions. Such as, "As a rule of thumb, college graduates tend to earn more than non-graduates."

      And when we enter the realm of "very rough" then we seem to be acknowledging that the "rule of thumb" is even weaker as a general rule, thereby rendering it useless, for all practical purposes.

      As the "Somerby is a dumbass" NAEP paper so eloquently stated, such statements as "x points = 1 year of advancement" can only be made after careful, controlled, repeated and quite expensive studies.

      As I continue to read Somerby tout his "very rough rule of thumb" (and his followers thinking it's OK by saying, "Well, he said, 'Very rough'") I am still searching for his source beyond "some say."

  8. Give up you pathetic turd.

    1. What's worse big fella? Somerby proven wrong (and Ripley right) by a turd, or American kids shellacked by the Poles?

      Your comment, of course, reinforces the second part of the question.

    2. Ripley based a gross generalization on three high school kids, a sample of convenience to say the least, and some cherry-picked PISA scores. If you didn't hate Somerby, I doubt even you would follow her down that path.

  9. I am also quite pleased how the effects of lead abatement began to get the media's attention after Neal deGrasse Tyson presented an episode about it on the rebooted "Cosmos."

    Kudos to him for shining his spotlight on it.

    1. Take that, Kevin Drum!

    2. Actually, kudos to Drum and to Kristof/WuDunn for adding their voices.

      The removal of lead from gasolines and paints is a stunning example of science prevailing over powerful corporate interests, and rather quickly.

    3. Or Uncle Dum, as We the People sometimes call him in a Freudian typo.

  10. OMB (Hay-Yo! Remembering Ripley & Polish Miracle Part Dwa)

    As we have been called a douchebag troll and a turd by those who join BOB in rejecting liberal intellectual elitism, we thought we would skip the Meredith Vieira Show today (we watch it for the down home furnished set) and take the figures given above by Anon. @ 6:20 yesterday ( who it has been alleged is us or are we) and further demonstrate a point we made in response to BOB a year ago. We quoted it above and will repeat it here:

    "But from 2003 to 2009, American students showed more improvement on the PISA’s three tests than Polish students did."

    MATH US Poland
    2003 -- 483 490
    2006 -- 474 495
    2009 -- 487 495
    2012 -- 481 518

    SCIENCE US Poland
    2006 -- 489 498
    2009 -- 502 508
    2012 -- 497 526

    READING US Poland
    2000 -- 504 479
    2003 -- 495 497
    2006 -- N/A 508
    2009 -- 500 500
    2012 -- 498 518

    As you can see by the first test, Math, BOB was already fibbing by one point. American kiddos did gain more on two tests, but as we pointed out in real time back in 2013, BOB had gone to great lengths to chastise Ripley for not using a year's worth of available test data then did the same thing himself, dropping 2000 because that removed the biggest gains made by Poland. To counter us he quit using the phrase "on the PISA's three tests." His next mention combined the total gains on all three tests; "American scores improved slightly more on the PISA from 2003 to 2009 than Polish scores did." Finally BOB had created a number which wasn't a lie. It was just a meaningless invention.

    We thank BOB for his habit of repetition. We knew he would circle back to PISA so we could imitate his style with an added ingredient, meme-free facts. And we thank his fans for calling us names, especially those who think every negative comment made is our own. You do know that that allegation, if true, means BOB has even fewer readers, don't you Bobfans?

    If we follow your advice and "go away", you won't have Douchebag Zarkon to kick around anymore. For the record, our dad, like Frank Nixon, never kicked us.