For today, a preview: Tomorrow, we start the final week in our award-winning five-week series, Where the Test Scores Are.
This week's reports will carry this title: Where the Challenges Are. We'll focus on the journalistic challenges—on the journalistic practices which keep the public from gaining a clear-eyed view of the apparent status of American students, teachers and schools.
That said, how do our schools seem to measure up, as compared to schools in the rest of the world? For today, we'll offer one set of data as a bit of an intellectual challenge.
Below, you see the way one set of American students performed on one international test. In fairness, we're cherry-picking a bit:
We've selected the largest subgroup of American students. And we've selected the one subtest on which American students performed least well, in the aggregate, in the most recent round of international testing for which we have data.
In recent years, journalists and "education experts" have had two sets of international data on which they could draw. They could draw on three subtests from the 2012 PISA, a program which tests 15-year-old students in reading, math and science; on four subtests from the 2011 TIMSS; which tests students from Grade 4 and Grade 8 in math and science; and on one subtest from the 2011 PIRLS, which tests Grade 4 students in reading.
(Results from the 2015 TIMSS and the 2015 PISA should be released by the end of this year.)
Of those eight subtests, American students performed least well, in the aggregate, on the PISA math test. A cynic might claim that this explains why you see that one subtest cited most often among the eight.
Let's eschew such rank speculation! Below, you see the way one group of American students performed on that one subtest, the worst subtest of the eight. To help you assess the meaning of the scores you'll see, consider a rule of thumb:
In an endnote to her 2013 book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley wrote that 39 points on the PISA scale "is considered the equivalent of one year of formal schooling."
Ripley worked closely with PISA World in writing her book. You should consider that rule of thumb in assessing the scores you see below—scores from the one subtest on which American students performed least well.
We include the three Asian test score superpowers, and the other large developed nations. Among smaller nations, we include miraculous Finland, the subject of vast amounts of American journalism:
Average scores, math literacy, 2012 PISAFor a fuller set of scores, click this.
South Korea: 554
United States, white students only: 506
United Kingdom: 494
On this, their worst of those eight subtests, white kids in the United States scored thirteen points behind the miraculous children of Finland. Applying Ripley's rule of thumb, we can draw this rough conclusion:
At the age of 15, white students in the U.S. lagged their counterparts in Finland by the equivalent of 12 weeks' instruction! (One-third of an 180-day school year).
That was the gap on the PISA math test. On the PISA reading test, the gap with Finland was only five points. On the TIMSS and the PIRLS, white students in the U.S. tended to outperform Finland. On this basis, we pose a question:
On the basis of these data, can anybody justify the past dozen years of journalistic Finland chic, which now threatens to expand into Estonia chic?
On that PISA math test, white kids in the U.S. were outscored by the Asian tigers to a substantial degree (as was the rest of the world). But they weren't outscored by Finland by much—and on other major international tests, they weren't outscored by Finland at all.
Dearly propagandized, let's try to understand the basis for our own comparison, in which we're presenting the average score for our white students only.
White students in the U.S. are what we'd call "majority culture." They come from the majority so-called race. Especially on an historical basis, they hail from their country's dominant culture.
In Finland, virtually everyone fits this description! There are very few immigrant kids. There is very little child poverty. There is no "racial minority"—no group whose ancestors were subjected to centuries of brutal mistreatment, including an attempt to eliminate literacy from their group altogether.
In our view, that chart helps us understand where our educational challenges lie. Presumably, American schools could do a better job, in a million ways, with the nation's white students. Beyond that, the nation's white students, like the rest of the world, have in fact been outperformed on international tests, to a substantial degree, by kids in the three Asian tigers.
Once we "disaggregate" American scores, it's hard to know why American journalists keep denigrating American teachers and schools on the basis of endless, all-expenses-paid comparisons to the teachers and schools of Finland.
By almost all accounts, Finland is a very nice place to live. It's a sane, well-ordered country. (It provides universal health care at very low cost, a fact you'll never see reported, explained or analyzed in your favorite American newspaper.)
That said, Finland is a small, unicultural, middle-class nation with very few immigrant kids, no historically targeted group, and very little child poverty. As in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, all its kids are "majority culture!" And we're sorry, but when it comes to "majority culture" kids, Finland doesn't seem to outperform the United States by much, if it does so at all. In our view, it's surprising to see how mediocre Finland's performance can start to seem when we disaggregate American scores in this painful but instructive way.
In our view, those data help us see where the largest chunks of our nation's educational challenges lie. But alas! In our view, the challenges posed by our press corps tend to keep us from gaining a clear view of these facts.
Starting tomorrow, we'll ponder those challenges all week. Our history and our social practices present us with major educational challenges. Our "press corps" creates journalistic challenges which are at least as large.
Starting tomorrow: Where the Challenges Are! (There may be some repetition.)