STANDARD REPORTS ABOUT STANDARDIZED TESTS: You get to choose between gloomy and wrong!


Times, Post toy with the PISA:
Last Monday, the latest international test scores were released.

The next day, the New York Times and the Washington Post presented standardized news reports about the way American kids had performed on the high-profile standardized tests.

In the Times, as if by law, the headline—and the report itself—offered a highly familiar, standardized form of gloom and despair.

Dana Goldstein's report appeared on the Times' front page. Hard-copy headline included, her report started like this:
GOLDSTEIN (12/3/19): School Reforms Fail to Lift U.S. On Global Test

The performance of American teenagers in reading and math has been stagnant since 2000
, according to the latest results of a rigorous international exam, despite a decades-long effort to raise standards and help students compete with peers across the globe.

And the achievement gap in reading between high and low performers is widening. Although the top quarter of American students have improved their performance on the exam since 2012, the bottom 10th percentile lost ground, according to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency.

The disappointing results from the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment, were announced on Tuesday and follow those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an American test that recently showed that two-thirds of children were not proficient readers.
If we might briefly borrow from Joyce, gloom was general all over Goldstein's report. As has long been required by law!

According to Goldstein's front-page report, school reforms had failed to lift American students. Also, the performance of American teens has been stagnant since 2000.

The achievement gap between high and low performers is widening. And not only that! These disappointing new results follow those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Naep), which recently showed that two-thirds of American children are not proficient readers.

For the record, each of those statements can be defended as "technically accurate." We'd call the overall package grossly misleading, but the individual claims can be defended, sometimes just barely, as being technically accurate.

Can the same be said for the corresponding report in the Washington Post? On balance, we'd have to say no:
BALINGIT AND VAN DAM (12/3/19): U.S. teens behind global peers in reading, math, science

Teenagers in the United States continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading, math and science,
according to results of an international exam that suggest U.S. schools are not doing enough to prepare young people for the competitive global economy.

The results of the Program for International Student Assessment—widely known as PISA—were released Tuesday and show widening disparities between high- and low-performing students in the United States, adding to a growing body of evidence showing worsening inequity in public schools.

The exam was first administered in 2000 to measure the performance of 15-year-olds in the 35 industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
and has been administered every three years since. It has expanded beyond the 35 member countries. In 2018, 600,000 students from 79 countries took the exam.
Was the basic claim there true? Is it true that teenagers in the United States continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading, math and science, according to the Pisa results?

Is it true, as the headline announced, that U.S. teens are behind their global peers in reading, math and science?

On balance, we'd have to say no. In our view, those statements are so absurdly misleading that, on balance, it makes most sense to regard them as simply false.

That said, let's be fair!

In fairness to the three journalists who prepared these gloomy, misleading and false reports, they were skillfully working from well-established upper-end journalistic script. Over the past decade or so, it has been a virtual requirement—all reporting about American schools must push one basic idea:
Nothing has worked in our public schools.
This standard script has shaped education reporting over the past several decades. For the most part, this gloomy story-line was peddled in support of the very type of "education reform" which has itself now failed to work, according to the gloomy headline on the front page of last Tuesday's Times.

If we might once again borrow from Joyce, this script has been general all over our flailing, benighted nation's attempts at education reporting. Consider:

We've been told that "nothing has worked" even as math and reading scores on the Naep rose and rose and rose, by what seem to be large amounts.

We've been told that "nothing has worked" even as American kids scored surprisingly well in reading and science on the international stage, as they did, once again, on the Pisa scores which were released last week.

Did American teens really "lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading, math and science" in the Pisa data which were released last week?

On balance, we'd say that claim is just wrong. And when you "disaggregate" American scores by ethnicity and race, you're confronted with results which fly in the face of conventional public understanding—results the Post and the Times omitted from their carefully culled, misleading and false reports.

Even in the aggregate, American teens scored surprisingly well in reading and science on the Pisa. As always, they scored less well on the Pisa'a somewhat unusual math test, but as everyone knows except newspaper readers, American kids score substantially better in math on the other international standardized test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (the Timss), which takes a more traditional approach.

Reading the Times and the Post last week, American citizens got to choose between gloomy, misleading and false. Points of truly amazing trivia were thrown in for good measure, producing the standardized brew of gloom and despair about the state of American schools.

Over the next few days, we're going to give you a fuller picture of what those Pisa scores seem to show. Would it surprise you to learn that two large segments of the American student population would, if viewed as separate nations, be the two highest-scoring nations in the world in both reading and science?

We know, we know—that can't be true! We all know that isn't possible. Everyone knows that can't be true because we all know that nothing has worked!

More accurately, very little has worked at the Times and the Post over the course of the decades in question. For most of those newspapers' education reporters, the only discernible skill involves recitation of standardized script, a product which has been served to the public down through these many dumb years.

Tomorrow: Where we stood among all those nations

Thursday: Now, let's disaggregate!


  1. "And when you "disaggregate" American scores by ethnicity and race"

    Oh dear. And why would you suggest such a tasteless (or should I say: "racist"?) thing, dear Bob? Your lib-zombie nature shows, I'm afraid. Sad.

    1. He wants to show that whites are clearly superior to blacks and Hispanics. He never talks about Asians, just as Kevin Drum thinks it is fine to ignore those Asian tiger nations and their ratty scores.

  2. Is it fair to cherry-pick the best performing parts of the US in order to show that the USA as a whole is doing fine? I don't think that is intellectually honest.

    1. Somerby is as honest as his idol, Donald J Trump

  3. Schools, by themselves, cannot buck a social trend that involves children spending too much screen time and too little time reading.

    The supposed stagnation of reading scores since 2000 coincides with the rise in use of cell phones and tablets by teens and children. Libraries have now become places where you can use a computer and free wifi, not somewhere to find new books for recreational reading. Increasingly, parents are not reading to kids. Teens are playing video games, not reading. Even tweets and messages are now strings of emojis and people prefer memes to paragraphs, short as those are.

    You don't become a proficient reader without practice. There is no need for kids to practice reading, and little opportunity to do so, given the way their lives are structured.

    But Somerby thinks there is no change in reading scores, no decline in reading ability. Because he dislikes the "doom and gloom" script of media? Scores can and do go down when the circumstances of kids' lives change.


    "Kids and teens age 8 to 18 spend an average of more than seven hours a day looking at screens. The new warning from the AHA recommends parents limit screen time for kids to a maximum of just two hours per day. For younger children, age 2 to 5, the recommended limit is one hour per day.

    Research has linked screen time with an increased amount of sedentary behavior in children and teens. While there is no longterm evidence yet to link screen time to an increased risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol, there is mounting evidence that it is associated with obesity, cardiologist and CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula explains."

  5. Those NAEP scores rose and rose until 2000 and now they are stagnant or declining. Why expect news media to report ever increasing scores when that is not what the scores are doing now?

  6. Here is an interesting comment about the math scores from someone named Katja at Kevin Drum's blog (following his PISA report on Dec 3:

    "PISA scores are designed with a mean of 500 points and a standard deviation of 100 points (across the OECD). One should therefore not freak out over differences in the 10-20 point range; however, if there is a persistent pattern, this can still indicate some underlying issues.

    That said, some of the issues with American high school math curricula are well-known:

    "The US by contrast expects second grade teachers to cover twice as many mathematics topics. The result is a characterization of the US curriculum as a mile wide and an inch deep."

    "Coherent standards move from the simple to the complex. By the middle grades the top achieving countries do not intend that children should continue to study basic computation skills but rather that they begin the transition to the study of algebra, including linear equations and functions, geometry and even in some cases, basic trigonometry. By the end of eighth grade in these countries children have mostly completed US high school courses in algebra I and geometry. By contrast, most US students are destined to mostly continue the study of arithmetic. In fact, we estimate that at the end of eighth grade US students are some two or more years behind their counterparts around the world."

    Source:; while this is a decade and a half old and there've been some changes, much of the criticism still applies."

  7. The existence of a big underclass messes up comparisons with other countries regarding health, infant mortality, and average life span as well as education. The Great Society program as been effective at getting people adequately fed, clothed an housed. But, it has failed to eliminate the underclass.

    1. Other countries also have minorities and underclasses. Some have taken in large numbers of refugees. Your fantasy that it is only such people who get low scores is also wrong.

      The Great Society was a long time ago. What have Republicans done to address the needs of unfortunate people?

    2. There is a much stronger connection between failing our children and businesses stiffing labor.

    3. "What have Republicans done to address the needs of unfortunate people?"

      Created almost 6 million new jobs.

      There's a big difference between having a job and being on welfare, even if the income is comparable.

    4. What is it deadrat writes? DinC is the village idiot, and Mao is the resident troll? Or is it the other way around? No matter, I think you may have got a twofer this time, DinC.


    5. "There's a big difference between having a job and being on welfare, even if the income is comparable."

      Meh. This is a capitalist country. If the boss wants me to take the job, he'll have to make it worth my while$.

  8. “all reporting about American schools must push one basic idea:

    Nothing has worked in our public schools.”

    The Times article contends that “School Reforms Fail to Lift U.S. On Global Test.”

    Somerby has in previous posts noted, echoing Kevin Drum, that lead abatement in the US may be the key to the increase in NAEP scores through the year 2000. If that is true, then schools and “school reforms” aren’t really responsible for the increase.

    Also, elsewhere he has railed against various school reforms and reformers, presumably because the reforms were wrong-headed or counterproductive.

    Does he want to counter the Times by claiming that school reforms *have* worked? If so, which ones?

    If not, if he is simply demanding that the media report on rising NAEP scores, then he needs to account for the last 19 years of non-rising scores. The same goes for the PISA.

    And there are plenty of TDH posts where he complains about the opposite, ie stories that tell feel good stories about schools and school reforms. (One that comes immediately to mind is the fairly recent one about the Lebron James school in Ohio.)

    Not to mention the many times he criticizes the media for ignoring the dire racial achievement gaps shown by the NAEP, which would seem to be an indictment of our school system.

    Somerby’s overall complaint seems to be simply that the media doesn’t do good reporting on schools. That may be true, but his criticisms are wildly inconsistent.

  9. waiting for angry old white male commentary on George Zimmerman suing the Martin family. how do "us liberals" feel about it?

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