WHERE THE CHALLENGES ARE: Where the (unrepresentative) test scores are!


Part 3 in this series

Part 4—Massachusetts v. Finland: Certain types of magical quests never seem to end. So it was that these headlines appeared, last June, in the august Atlantic:
Is Estonia the New Finland?
With a focus on equity, the northern European country has quietly joined the ranks of the global education elite.
In one way, tiny Estonia could become the new Finland. It could become the latest small corner of Europe to which American journalists are sent in search of the public school holy grail.

Finland has been cast in that role ever since its students attained high scores on the inaugural PISA, back in the year 2000. Now, the Atlantic had gone to an even smaller corner of Europe, ostensibly seeking the source of its public school success.

In this case, the Atlantic had gone to a tiny corner of Europe. Estonia's population is 1.3 million. By contrast, Finland—population, 5.5 million—qualifies as a behemoth.

Can we learn from the public schools of Estonia and Finland? Presumably yes, we can. And yet, this era of Finland public school chic has been absurd on its face.

You see, Finland isn't just a small corner of Europe. It's a small, unrepresentative corner of Europe—a pleasant, apparently admirable nation whose public schools face a limited set of educational challenges.

For better or worse, Finland is a small, unicultural, middle-class nation. To its great credit, it never created a despised "racial" minority. It didn't spend centuries attempting to eliminate literacy from any such brutalized group.

For better or worse, it has authorized little immigration as compared to its neighbors in Europe. In large part due to its social systems, very few of its public school students come from impoverished homes.

In August 2010, Newsweek went all in. Based on an exhaustive survey, it officially anointed Finland "the best country in the world."

This accolade was announced as part of "Newsweek's first-ever Best Countries special issue." Switzerland was declared second best. Sweden went home with the bronze.

By many accounts, Finland is a wonderful place to live. It's also an unrepresentative corner of Europe.

As a general matter, its public schools don't face the social, demographic and cultural challenges found in the schools of many other nations. Finland has never solved the attendant educational challenges because it has never encountered them.

For these reasons, it never made a lot of sense to send reporters to Finland seeking answers to our country's many educational challenges. Needless to say, this didn't stop the American press from going all in on this game.

As of June, the Atlantic was threatening to extend this quest to an even tinier corner of Europe. In our view, it's time to address this foolishness by taking a fuller look at where the test scores are.

The trips to Finland have long been used to denigrate American students, teachers and schools. As such, the trips have been part of a larger pattern of denigration—a pattern of denigration quite widespread within our press elites.

This punishing journalistic cult was always founded upon Finland's international test scores. Today, let's see how this glorified small corner of Europe stacks up on international tests as compared to two small corners of our own pitiful land.

You've heard of these corners of the U.S.; they're called Massachusetts and Connecticut. In terms of population, one is larger than Finland, the other turns out to be smaller:
Population of three small corners
Finland: 5.5 million
Massachusetts: 6.8 million
Connecticut: 3.8 million
As with Finland, so too with these small corners; in certain ways, they are unrepesentative corners of the United States. That said, their public schools face many more demographic, social and educational challenges than the public schools of Finland, "where the children are all above average."

(Not long ago, the New York Times described a challenging corner of Connecticut. We refer to Bridgeport, a city with lots of immigrant kids, substantial amounts of poverty, and the inevitable backwash of this country's brutal racial history. You can't learn how to address the resulting educational challenges by flying to Finland. In Finland, such challenges barely exist.)

Massachusetts is a relatively advantaged corner of the United States; Finland is a relatively advantaged corner of Europe. That said, how do the test scores of Bay State students stack up against the scores of their peers in Finland? Luckily, we're able to check.

You see, Massachusetts and Connecticut participated as independent entities in the most recent rounds of international testing—the 2011 TIMSS and the 2012 PISA. This lets us compare the two small corners of the U.S. to the one small corner of Europe.

Given our pitiful public schools, how did our small corners stack up? We'll start with results from the PISA, the international test on which American students have performed less well.

Below, you see some average scores from the PISA's 2012 reading test. The PISA tests 15-year-old students. Among the world's developed nations, we're including the three high-scoring Asian tigers, plus Finland and the U.S.

We're also including Massachusetts and Connecticut; we'll highlight scores from Massachusetts alone. Among American scores, we're performing some disaggregation.

These data plainly show us where our national challenges are. They also place ubiquitous claims about Finland in a bit of a wider perspective:
Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2012 PISA
United States, Asian-American students: 550
Connecticut, white students: 546
Massachusetts, white students: 540
Japan: 538
South Korea: 536
Massachusetts: 527
Finland: 524

Taiwan: 523
Connecticut: 521
United States, white students: 519
United States: 498
United States, Hispanic students: 478
United States, black students: 443
Remember—the PISA is the battery on which American kids do less well. According to a rough rule of thumb, 39 points on the PISA scale is roughly equivalent to one academic year.

On the national level, those data offer a sobering look at where our challenges are. On the other hand, those data seem to belie the ubiquitous claim that something is horribly wrong with our teachers and schools, full stop.

Judging from this international test, our teachers and schools seem to be doing fairly well with our "majority culture" students. White students in the U.S. basically matched their peers in miraculous Finland.

Meanwhile, Asian-American kids outperformed Finland, by a substantial amount. They also outscored the students in all three Asian tigers.

On the national level, different people will see different things when they look at those disaggregated American scores. We see a set of daunting educational challenges. We won't learn how to meet those challenges through sweeping denunciations of our teachers and schools, full stop.

That said, consider the performance of the students in two small corners of our own United States.

For all their relative demographic complexity, students in Massachusetts and Connecticut matched the scores of their peers in Finland on this particular test. White students in those states—students from the "majority culture"—outscored their peers in Finland, a nation where virtually all the kids are "majority culture."

Why are our journalists flying to Finland? Why aren't they taking Amtrak to Boston—or to such demographically different locales as Worcester, Fall River, Amherst, Methuen, Lawrence, perhaps Billerica?

Except in the search for denigration, why are they flying to Finland? That basic question even survives the most recent PISA math test:
Average scores, Math Literacy, 2012 PISA
Taiwan: 560
South Korea: 554
United States, Asian-American students: 549
Japan: 536
Connecticut, white students: 534
Massachusetts, white students: 530
Finland: 519
Massachusetts: 514

United States, white kids: 506
Connecticut: 506
United States: 481
United States, Hispanic students: 455
United States, black students: 421
Remember. Of the eight sub-tests in the most recent international testing, this was the sub-test on which American kids scored least well. But even on this worst sub-test, Bay State students matched their counterparts in Finland.

White kids in Massachusetts and Connecticut—kids from the majority culture—outscored their peers from that miraculous land.

Why do journalists fly to Finland? Why not deplane in Boston? The question becomes especially clear when we look at results from the latest TIMSS.

The TIMSS is the international test on which American students tend to score better. Perhaps for that reason, results from the TIMSS are often disappeared in the American press.

We'll use Grade 8 scores instead of those from Grade 4. We can't give you a rule of thumb for interpreting score differentials here.

That said, Bay State students pounded Finland in both science and math on the TIMSS. In science, white kids in Massachusetts even pounded the Asian tigers:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
South Korea: 613
Taiwan: 609
Massachusetts, white students: 572
Japan: 570
United States, Asian-American students: 568
Massachusetts: 561
Connecticut, white students: 543
United States, white students: 530
Connecticut: 518
Finland: 514
United States: 509
United States, Hispanic students: 485
United States, black students: 465

Average scores, Grade 8 science, 2011 TIMSS
Massachusetts, white students: 587
United States, Asian-American students: 576
Massachusetts: 567
Taiwan: 564
Connecticut, white students: 562
South Korea: 560
Japan: 558
United States, white students: 553
Finland: 552
Connecticut: 532
United States: 525
United States, Hispanic students: 493
United States, black students: 470
Is something "wrong" with the TIMSS? If so, why do the United States and the Asian tigers participate in the testing? If not, why are journalists flying to Finland in search of a miracle cure?

In the course of this series, we've tried to broaden your understanding of where the test scores are. Test scores are an imperfect way to measure the quality of a nation's schools. But they're widely discussed in the American press, often in ways which serve the goals of a strange, gloomy propaganda.

Certain corporate and political elites have reason to denigrate American students, teachers and schools. Inevitably, American journalists have been prepared to pimp the official elite story-line about our embarrassing schools.

They report the gaps, disappear the gains. They report the PISA, avoid the TIMSS. They disaggregate scores when it advances their themes.

And again and again, they fly to Finland, the miraculous small corner of Europe whose kids get matched and outscored by Massachusetts, a much more complex and challenging corner of the U.S. "Please come to Boston," the folksinger cries. But our journalists hurry on past.

A few years ago, this state of affairs left Bill Keller making an odd pronouncement. Inevitably, he was speaking in favor of one particular type of "reform:"

"[T]he Common Core was created with a broad, nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable."

Like so many other people, Keller believed that we had experienced "decades of embarrassing decline" in our public schools. He'd seen it said and implied, again and again, in the organs of the national press. Keller, who is decent and bright, seemed to believe that he was stating an obvious fact.

In all honesty, that isn't where the test scores are. Why have Keller and so many others been so thoroughly disinformed?

Also, PISA science: Below, you see results from the PISA science test. This was Finland's best performance as compared to the Asian tigers and even as compared to our own Massachusetts:
Average scores, Science Literacy, 2012 PISA
Japan: 547
Connecticut, white students: 547
United States, Asian-American students: 546
Massachusetts, white students: 545
Finland: 545

South Korea: 538
United States, white students: 528
Massachusetts: 527
Taiwan: 523
Connecticut: 521
United States: 497
United States, Hispanic students: 462
United States, black students: 439
Advice to editors—save a few bucks! Put them on the train to Boston, or perhaps on the bus to New Bedford, a demographically challenging former whaling town.

Massachusetts achieved its scores in the face of those challenges. Why not drop by that small corner to see how they're doing it there?


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  2. Keller's comments were about Grades 1-12.

    Bob Somerby repeatedly makes excuses to ignore Grades 9-12.

    1. As if no one here has ever explained the problems with the high school scores to you before.

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