WHERE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAPS ARE: In search of embarrassing international gaps!


Part 3 in this series

Part 4—On the TIMSS, they're hard to find: In June of last year, Donald J. Trump was discussing an important, terrible problem.

It was June 16, 2015; Trump was announcing his White House campaign. After explaining that Mexico was "sending us" a lot of rapists, he talked about some embarrassing achievement gaps in the international realm:

"We're twenty-sixth in the world," the new candidate thoughtfully said. "Twenty-five countries are better than us at education. And some of them are like third-world countries. But we're becoming a third-world country," the thoughtful candidate said.

The previous evening, Rachel Maddow had assured us that she had nothing against Mr. Trump. Birtherism be danged!

Over the course of the next few weeks, Maddow barely mentioned Trump's comments about all the rapists we were being sent. She didn't mention his comments about education at all, and she never will.

Were Trump's comments accurate? Granted, such comments have been quite familiar in recent years as we hear about the "embarrassing decline" in our public schools—an embarrassing decline which is said to have occurred even as our domestic test scores have shown "truly spectacular gains."

We hear such comments all the time, but were Trump's comments accurate? Is it true that twenty-five countries "are better than us at education?" Might this state of affairs even suggest that we are becoming a third-world nation? Was that familiar assessment fair and balanced?

Such claims can only be judged by results from two international testing programs: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international program which started in 1995 and now operates on a four-year cycle; and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which started in 2000 and is administered every third year.

The United States participates in both programs on a regular basis. Most of the world's developed nations have participated in each of these programs to some degree.

Information about academic achievement, and about achievement gaps, can only come from these two programs. For today, we'll concentrate on data from the TIMSS, the granddaddy of them both.

(The TIMSS tests math and science. A companion program, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, conducts and international test in reading. We've hit all the acronyms now.)

As we noted earlier this series, one fairly obvious achievement gap obtains in both sets of international tests. A small number of Asian states tends to outperform all other developed nations on both the TIMSS and the PISA.

We refer to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, along with Singapore and Hong Kong, a pair of smaller city states. As you can see in data from both the TIMSS and the PISA, students in these education systems tend to outscore their counterparts from around the world in reading, math and science, by fairly significant margins.

As a general rule, American students don't score on the level of their counterparts in these Asian tigers. Then again, neither do students from anywhere else in the world.

That said, it's hard to find embarrassing achievement gaps when students in American schools are compared to their peers from all other developed nations on the TIMSS or the PIRLS. Because Americans are rarely permitted to hear such facts, we'll concentrate today on results from those programs.

The TIMSS tests students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 in both math and science. The PIRLS tests students in Grade 4 in reading. The most recent TIMSS testing occurred last year, but those results aren't available yet. Today, we'll review the results from 2011—the results which have been available to journalists over the past four years.

Below, you see some average scores from the Grade 4 math test. For simplicity's sake, we're not including the handful of Asian states which tend to outscore the rest of the world.

We're including the major developed nations of the rest of the world, along with a selection of the smaller developed nations. In Grade 4 math, we'd be inclined to say that Americans kids scored surprisingly well, especially when you consider the profusion of disparaging comments one constantly hears about our hapless failing schools:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, 2011 TIMSS
Finland 545
England 542
Russia 542
United States 541
Netherlands 540
Denmark 537
Portugal 532
Germany 528
Canada 525
Australia 516
Hungary 515
Austria 508
Italy 508
Belgium 505
Sweden 504
France 499
Norway 495
New Zealand 486
Spain 482
Poland 481
Among the larger nations, American students matched their peers in England and Russia, outscored their peers in Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, France and Spain.

They scored a few points behind the miracle kids of miraculous Finland. They soundly outscored their peers in such smaller nations as Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Norway. To our propagandized eyes and ears, those are surprising results.

For the fuller set of results, click here. We can't give you a rule of thumb with which to judge the size of those score differentials, but the National Center for Education Statistics shows you which of the average scores are considered "different [from the U.S. average score] at the level of statistical significance."

As you can see from the fuller results, the five Asian tigers substantially outscored all other nations. For reasons we'll briefly cite below, American students did surprisingly well as compared to everyone else.

The picture was roughly the same in Grade 8 math, though many fewer nations took part. The PISA tests 15-year-old students in reading, math and science. For that reason, some nations take part in the TIMSS on the Grade 4 level, skip the Grade 8 tests:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
Russia 539
Finland 514
United States 509
England 507
Australia 505
Hungary 505
Italy 498
Sweden 484
Norway 475
That's a substantially smaller set of comparison nations. (Again, the five Asian entities substantially outscored everyone else.)

According to the NCES, Russian students outscored the U.S. at the level of statistical significance; the students of miraculous Finland did not. According to the NCES, Finland, England, the U.S. and Australia were statistically indistinguishable on this test.

Results were roughly similar on the TIMSS science tests. In Grade 4 science, only Finland and Russia outscored the U.S., aside from the Asian nations. American students outscored England, Germany, Italy, Australia and Spain, along with a long list of smaller developed nations.

(France and Canada didn't take part. It seems clear that the U.S. would have outscored Canada, based on scores from three provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, which participated as independent entities.)

In Grade 8 science, the United States was outscored by Finland and Russia at the level of statistical significance. The American average score was indistinguishable from those of England, Hungary and Australia. American students outscored their peers from New Zealand, Sweden, Italy and Norway.

The PIRLS tests reading in Grade 4 only. Asian tigers aside, American students outscored the bulk of the developed world. For fuller results, click here:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading, 2011 PIRLS
Finland 568
Russia 568
United States 556
Denmark 554
Ireland 552
England 552
Canada 548
Netherlands 546
Sweden 542
Italy 541
Germany 541
New Zealand 531
Austria 529
Australia 527
Poland 526
France 520
Spain 513
Norway 507
On this test, American students were right on the tail of the Asian nations.

We're looking today at the most recent scores from the TIMSS and the PIRLS—the scores available to American journalists over the past four years. At the Grade 8 level on the TIMSS, international participation wasn't all that it might have been.

That said, results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS are surprisingly good, considering the gloomy assessments one constantly hears in the American public discourse. No one matches the academic results of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. But on the 2011 TIMSS and the 2011 PIRLS, American kids performed rather well as compared to the rest of the world.

In our view, the results are also surprisingly good considering some of the demographic challenges created by our nation's brutal racial history and by some of our current social and educational policies and practices. It has always been especially silly to compare American test scores to those of Finland, a small, middle-class, unicultural nation whose schools face few such challenges. But American journalists have been eager to do so over the part fifteen years.

Why have our journalists done that? We'll postpone such considerations until the final week of this four-week report. Tomorrow, we'll continue our search for embarrassing international gaps as we examine results from the PISA.

Our mileage has varied on the PISA. Why the heck is that?

Tomorrow: Achievement gaps on the PISA


  1. One reason for the media, e.g., NYT, to ignore these figures is that Russia is ahead of us, which doesn't at all fit their narrative.

  2. One reason for the media, e.g., NYT, to ignore these figures is that Russia is ahead of us, which doesn't at all fit their narrative.

  3. One reason for the media, e.g., NYT, to ignore these figures is that Russia is ahead of us, which doesn't at all fit their narrative.

    1. If you were to take night classes, do you think you might learn to post a comment without repeating yourself?

    2. He/She/It does it on purpose.

  4. Finland is adjacent to and strongly influenced by Russia. I wonder if that accounts for the similarity in their scores.

  5. "The previous evening, Rachel Maddow had assured us that she had nothing against Mr. Trump. Birtherism be danged!"

    Soon Bob Somerby will express his belief in online polls, take to tweeting at 3-5am, and express disgust at female weight gain. Until then he will merely make things up like Donald Trump.

    1. I'm sure you know what Rachel "really" meant.

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