STANDARD REPORTS ABOUT STANDARDIZED TESTS: American kids outperformed by Macau!


With other deceptions and points of major trivia:
Last Tuesday morning, our analysts encountered a gloomy headline. It was bannered across the top of the Washington Post's page A3.

The headline filled our workers with despair. We heard them keening and wailing, then found them tearing their hair. Starting with that gloomy headline, this is what they'd read:
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.
That's what our analysts read in last Tuesday's Washington Post. Our teens continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading, math and science!

The Post was reporting the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment, known to its friends as the Pisa. Early on, the Post described the basics of this high-profile international program:
"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."
There you have it! Kids from 79 nations took part—and U.S. kids took a dive.

Over the course of the past several decades, such gloomy assessments have virtually been mandated within the mainstream press.

In the past few decades, such assessments have been put to use in service to a type of "education reform" favored by billionaire donors. Major news orgs like the Post and the Times agreed to adopt a standard script when discussing our public schools:

Nothing has worked in our public schools, these obedient performers all said.

Last Tuesday morning's gloomy headline advanced that familiar script. Still, we decided to read the Post's report—and about a third of the way through the gloom-ridden piece, we found ourselves reading this:
BALINGIT AND VAN DAM: Reading and math scores for U.S. students have not changed significantly since the exam debuted, while there have been some improvements in science. That trend continued in 2018, when student scores across all three subjects were virtually unchanged from 2015.

Several countries lost ground, boosting the ranking of the United States, which ranked eighth in reading and 11th in science. Its math score—below the average for other countries in the OECD—put it at 30th in the world, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Say what? U.S. kids finished eighth in the world in reading? Is that what the Post now said?

As you can see, the writing in that passage was a bit unclear. Had U.S. kids finished eighth "in the world"—eighth out of the 79 countries who took the reading test? Or had they simply finished eighth out of the 35 OECD nations?

It sounded like they were eighth in the world, eighth out of 79! And sure enough! When we scanned the corresponding gloomy report in the New York Times, we were eventually permitted to read this:
GOLDSTEIN (12/3/19): The most recent PISA test was given in 2018 to 600,000 15-year-olds in 79 education systems around the world, and included both public and private school students...

Although math and science were also tested, about half of the questions were devoted to reading, the focus of the 2018 exam. Students were asked to determine when written evidence supported a particular claim and to distinguish between fact and opinion, among other tasks.

The top performers in reading were four provinces of China—Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Also outperforming the United States were Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland. The United Kingdom, Japan and Australia performed similarly to the United States.
Ignore the part about those four provinces, which are famously unrepresentative of Chinese public education as a whole. When it comes to actual countries, or to near approximations of same, the U.S was only outscored on the Pisa reading test by this selection of international power-lifters, or so the Times now said:
Outperformed the U.S. on the reading test:
Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland
According to the New York Times, that was the whole list! Those were the seven (7) "education systems" which outperformed U.S. teens on the Pisa reading test!

U.S. teens were outscored by those seven. Might we offer a few remarks about this list of education systems?

For better or worse, Hong Kong isn't an actual country. Neither of course is Macau—and its total population is less than 700,000.

(That's total population, not just kids.)

Estonia was the highest scoring OECD nation on the reading test.
Its total population is roughly 1.3 million. That makes it smaller than Finland, a middle-class boutique nation which has permitted little immigration and boasts a total population of less than 6 million.

Taking nothing away from the performances of these nations and near-nations, are these supposed to be the "peer nations" with which the U.S. had struggled to compete? Can this list possibly explain that Post report, in which readers were told that U.S. teens "continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading?"

The gloomy headline in the Post said that U.S. teens performed behind their global peers in reading. Now, the Times was reporting that U.S. kids were indeed outperformed by the teens of Macau, but had actually matched the performance of their peers in such major nations as the United Kingdom and Japan.

Did American teens really lag behind their global peers in reading, science and math? That's what the Post headline said—and, on balance, we'd have to say that the headline was simply wrong.

As we noted yesterday, the New York Times also adopted a gloomy approach to the "stagnant performance" and "disappointing results" recorded by U.S. teens. That said, Dana Goldstein did manage to add this fourth paragraph to her gloomy opening framework, although she instantly disappeared one of the three Pisa tests:
GOLDSTEIN: Over all, American 15-year-olds who took the PISA test scored slightly above students from peer nations in reading but below the middle of the pack in math.
We're not quite sure who those "peer nations" are, but Goldstein at least reported that American kids had outscored them in reading.

That said, those same American 15-year-olds also "scored above students from peer nations" in science. Ridiculously, the Times couldn't find space to include that basic fact, even as it filled its lengthy report with oodles of silly speculations and pointless pieces of trivia.

How did U.S. teens actually do on these Pisa tests? As Goldstein noted in the Times, reading was the Pisa's principal focus last year. The National Center for Education Statistics offers these accurate bullet points about the U.S. performance:
NCES: Compared to the 76 other education systems in PISA 2018, the U.S. average reading literacy score was lower than the average in 8 education systems, higher than the average in 57 education systems, and not measurably different from the average in 11 education systems.

The U.S. average score (505) was higher than the OECD average score (487).

Compared to the 35 other OECD members, the U.S. average in reading literacy was lower than the average in 4 education systems, higher than in 21, and not measurably different than in 10.
At the Washington Post, that somehow meant that U.S. kids were lagging behind their global peers in reading. But let's not leave things there:

Ever so briefly, let's set "statistical significance" to the side. On this global reading test, U.S. teens did in fact outscore their peers in such major peer nations as the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Germany, Taiwan, France, Italy, Spain and Russia.

(For the full list of nations, click here.)

As you can see at that link, they also outscored their peers in such smaller European nations as Denmark, Norway, Belgium Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. From this, the Washington Post somehow derived the idea that they "continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading."

With statistical significance thrown in, U.S. teens were outperfomed by virtually no one, not even Korea—until you read the gloomy headline (and report) in the Washington Post, with the gloomy framework of the New York Times lagging not far behind.

With regard to the Times, understand this:

As early as paragraph 4 of its gloomy report about the "stagnant/disappointing" results, the Times had disappeared the Pisa science test altogether. That's too bad, because U.S. kids outperformed their peers on that test as well, by a slightly lesser margin than on the reading test:
NCES: Compared to the 77 other education systems in PISA 2018, the U.S. average science literacy score was lower than the average in 11 education systems, higher than the average in 55 education systems, and not measurably different from the average in 11 education systems.

The U.S. average score (502) was higher than the OECD average score (489).

Compared to the 36 other OECD members, the U.S. average in science literacy was lower than the average in 6 education systems, higher than in 19, and not measurably different than in 11.
In our view, U.S. teens did amazingly well, in the aggregate, in reading and science on the 2018 Pisa. We say that for these reasons:

As part of our brutal racial history, the United States spent several centuries attempting to eliminate literacy from one major part of its population. We continue to suffer from the effects of that profoundly unfortunate behavior.

Also, the United States has experienced a large amount of immigration, authorized and unauthorized, involving good, deserving kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. This does in fact produce a challenge within our public schools.

To their credit, most nations didn't spend centuries trying to eliminate literacy from large chunks of their populations. Also, some countries (Finland) allow very little immigration, while other countries (Canada) mainly allow immigration from high-education Asian populations, whose kids actually outperform native-born Canadian kids on international tests.

Due to our brutal racial history; due to our immigration realities; the public schools of our large continental nation face certain types of challenges not found everywhere else. With that in mind, it strikes us as amazing to think that U.S. teens, in the aggregate, perform as well as they do on Pisa reading and science tests, even with journalists constantly standing in line to misreport their performance.

U.S. teens have performed less well on the rather unusual Pisa math test. As we noted yesterday, they have performed much better on the more conventional Timss math tests, with the inevitable result that their performance on those tests tend to be unreported, even aggressively disappeared.

Might we speak frankly for once? People who read the Post and the Times last week were misled and misinformed regarding these high-profile tests. We'd say the Times report was highly misleading while the Post was simply wrong.

As is required by Press Corp Law, the papers pimped a lot of gloom concerning these high-profile tests. The Post's banner headline was just flatly wrong. The Times report wasn't a whole lot better.

Here's a guess. We'll guess that most people would be surprised to learn how well U.S. students actually did on the reading and science tests. Tomorrow, we'll show you basic data from those tests which are many times more surprising.

These basic data will help us see where our society's moral burden actually lies. But these basic data will also rock your world, and for that reason the Washington Post and the New York Times didn't, and won't, share them with you.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Our upper-end press corps frequently generates cult-like scams.

Tomorrow's data are shocking, even to us. But they tell us the actual shape of the world, and so these data are being withheld from the public's view.

Tomorrow: Would it surprise you if you were told...

For full NCES reporting: The NCES produces mountains of highly useful data about domestic and international testing programs. These data are then aggressively ignored by our slumbering "education reporters."

You can lead the reporters to the links, but you can't make them click!

We've linked you to different parts of the NCES report on the 2018 Pisa. For access to all parts of the NCES reporting, you should just click here.


  1. Meh. Something's fishy about Estonia. Did they give them that reading test in Estonian? I'm guessing there's a large minority there (30% or so) who don't read or speak Estonian. Not very well, anyway.

    1. Non-native speakers or "language learners" are typically excluded from these kinds of tests.

    2. In that case, it's the population of ~800K people. With a relatively low birth rate, so not too many school children.

  2. Somerby has a point about the mismatch between the headline and the data in this report, but he also ignores the fact that current scores for US children were unchanged from the last test. Stagnant. That is consistent with scores on other tests including NAEP and SAT/ACT. Those reports also say that the US improvement in ranking is largely due to decreases in scores by other nations, not due to a change in US scores.

    When there are numerous active efforts to improve American education, stagnant scores are a legitimate concern. I believe these result from the wrong-headedness of Trump's Dept of Education and of the support for charter schools, which at best emulate public school performance and at worst cheat children and their parents out of an education.

    Somerby never wants to discuss actual education issues. Cue deadrat to tell us that he can talk about whatever he wants and that this is a media criticism blog, not an education blog. But why bring up a nitpick about the phrasing of a headline unless it refers to something meaningful that we should be discussing?

    1. We should change math education to introduce algebra sooner and help children learn to reason with quantitative information. Math matters and is important as the language of science.

    2. We should be demanding that reforms be evaluated for effectiveness using standardized tests.

    3. Somerby and others need to stop scapegoating minority kids and using them to explain away lack of improvement on such measures. The insistence that these other nations have no minorities is ridiculous given the large numbers of refugees that countries like Germany have taken in, and the recent US refusal to accept even legal immigrants. Many countries, including the UK are more of a melting pot these days than we are.

    4. There is no reason why Somerby and Drum give ourselves a pass for failing to measure up to Asian countries in math. We have a math problem and we should be facing it and addressing it in our schools.

    We are lagging behind 7 other countries. Whether that is a concern or not is a different question than whether we are number 1 or number 8 among nations. Coming in 8th in a presidential primary means you lost. Why does Somerby think 8th is good? Our scores are a gentleman's C and Somerby seems OK with that (because other European nations were right there with us), but why does he accept mediocrity? Because our black kids are weighing us down and that is the legacy of our destructive racial history? Seems to me that excuse is getting old. Somerby never wants to discuss how we might better educate our minority kids (if they are actually the problem, outnumbered as they are by mediocre white kids).

    And Somerby never mentions our history of American exceptionality, our belief that we should be 1st in everything in the world, and especially ahead of shithole countries like Macau. We are "lagging" if the standard is that we should be 1st always, in all things, or Trump has let us down.

    1. The IG report shows Somerby was wrong on the Russia investigation, thus the pivot to education.

    2. Ah, but Somerby will always have Bill Barr:
      “For ourselves, we'd like to see William Barr go ahead and do his freaking report. We're curious about the Maltese professor too; we're curious to see if Barr, or if U.S. attorney John Durham, can actually come up with any information about him.”

    3. Cue deadrat

      Call the devil by name and he appears behind you.

      to tell us … that this is a media criticism blog, not an education blog.

      Although why you need me to tell you this is a mystery.

      TDH quoting Goldstein:

      [In the most recent PISA test] about half of the questions were devoted to reading,…. Students were asked to determine when written evidence supported a particular claim and to distinguish between fact and opinion,….

      Here’s TDH’s claim: the gloom-and-doom reporting about the US educational system is unwarranted and misleading. Let’s see how you would have done on the test.

      “stagnant scores are a legitimate concern.” Sorry, lost point. The claim under consideration is about how the US compares to other countries, not the trend in US scores, which obviously involves comparing current US scores to previous US scores.

      ”Somerby never wants to discuss actual education issues.” I assume “education issues” means things like teaching strategies and curriculum design. While this is true, it’s irrelevant. The topic is the success (or lack thereof) of our current system. Another lost point.

      ”Math matters and is important as the language of science.” Nowhere does TDH argue that math is unimportant. He’s talking about the measurement of math proficiency, saying that US students do better on “conventional” standardized tests than they do on “unusual” tests like Pisa. One point off.

      You lose an additional point for your clueless writing. What you’ve said is that math is equally important as the language of science. What you really mean is “As the language of science, math is important” That is, math is the language of science, which makes it important.

      ”Somerby and others need to stop scapegoating minority kids and using them to explain away lack of improvement….

      One demerit for failure to correctly discern opinion: TDH isn’t “scapegoating” minority kids. His talk about our “brutal” racial history means that it is our society that has failed the kids, not the other way around. And one demerit for failure to discern fact: the racial gaps TDH talks about are responsible mathematically for lower average scores.

      ”The insistence that these other nations have no minorities is ridiculous given the large numbers of refugees that countries like Germany have taken in….

      Two points off. One for claiming that TDH has said that other countries haven’t taken in refugees. He said that Finland, which outscores us, is demographically uniform. One lost point for not realizing that Germany, like us, is struggling with immigration and American kids still outscore German kids on average.

      ”Many countries, including the UK are more of a melting pot these days than we are.

      I really should take off more than one point for your not being able to tell the difference between fact and (your own) opinion. Here are the latest census figures for the UK and the US:

      UK (2011)
      white 87.2%
      black 3.0%
      Asian 4.2%
      mixed 2%
      other 3.7%

      US (2010)
      white 72.4%
      black 12.6%
      Asian 4.8%
      mixed 2.9%
      other, including native americans 7.3%

      (Hispanics may be of any race and aren’t included in the table above. They make up 16.3% of the population.)

      The figures are a decade old, but the UK population grew about 7% between 2010 and now, so they couldn’t have overtaken us as a melting pot no matter how you distributed the newcomers)

      ”We are lagging behind 7 other countries. … Why does Somerby think 8th is good?”

      No evidence in the blog entry that he does. The claim, again, is that it’s wrong to paint a mournful picture of our failure. Minus one.

      ”Somerby never wants to discuss how we might better educate our minority kids.”

      Not germane to the topic. Minus one again.

      At this point, you’re failing the course. I suggest you see the dean’s office to drop the class.

  3. “In our view, U.S. teens did amazingly well, in the aggregate, in reading and science on the 2018 Pisa.”

    Perhaps this is the story or the headline Somerby would have preferred. But that is doubtful, because he probably would have chastised such a story/headline for ignoring the serious problem of racial achievement gaps as shown by the NAEP test.

    Somerby does have a point, it seems to me. Betsy DeVos immediately issued dire warnings because of the PISA results, and she wants more “conservative” reforms as a result. To the extent that the media simply hypes the negative aspects of the results, they could be faulted for playing into the hands of ideological “reformers” like DeVos.

    On the other hand, it isn’t clear that a news report ought to express either “the results are dire” or Somerby’s “the results are amazing.”

    Somerby himself is guilty of negativity about test scores, when he in the past frequently pointed out the direness and the punishing size of the racial achievement gaps in the NAEP, even as he simultaneously noted the overall rise in average NAEP scores (at least until 2000).

    There is some sense in which this constant harping on test scores inevitably leads to calls for action, whether the test results are being reported by the New York Times or Bob Somerby. But as long as the reporting is factual, it is up to us and our politicians to decide what to do in light of standardized test results.

  4. Yesterday the House voted released articles of impeachment against the president but Somerby is complaining about a headline on an education article about test scores.

    Nothing to see here folks, these are not the droids you are seeking. Trump loves it when he can distract from bad news and Somerby is helping him do that today by utterly and totally ignoring the only thing that is important to liberals -- getting rid of Trump.

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