SATURDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2023
Not that such facts get reported: What happens in American schools is important.
In part, that's true because of the acquisition of skills and knowledge. It's also true with respect to the personal happiness of the kids who attend our schools.
It's important when higher-performing kids, of whatever description, are bored out of their gourds by the level of instruction.
It's also important when lower-performing kids are overwhelmed by the level of instruction and leave school every day with the sense—in the language of the child—that they must be "stupid."
What happens in school is important. Every so often, when major test scores are released, major newspapers get to make an important choice:
Which parts of the data will they report? Which parts will they disappear?
American Teens Still Trail Other Countries in Math
The math performance of U.S. teenagers has sharply declined since 2018, with scores lower than 20 years ago, and with American students continuing to trail global competitors, according to the results of a key international exam released on Tuesday.
In the first comparable global results since the coronavirus pandemic, 15-year-olds in the United States scored below students in similar industrialized democracies like the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, and well behind students in the highest-performing countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Estonia—continuing an underperformance in math that predated the pandemic.
The bleak math results were offset by a stronger performance in reading and science, where the United States scored above average internationally.
About 66 percent of U.S. students performed at least at a basic level in math, compared with about 80 percent in reading and science, according to the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.
The report was written by Sarah Mervosh, a good, decent person. The focus of the report was on the performance by American students in math.
On balance, the outlook was gloomy.
For the record, "Math Literacy" was the "major domain" in the 2022 testing. That said, the PISA also tested 15-year-old students in "Reading Literacy" and "Science Literacy," as it always does.
We've shown you the way the New York Times' news report started. So far, it's hard to say that anything stated in the report is actually "wrong."
That said, Mervosh continued as shown below. The highlighted statement is quite gloomy, but is that highlighted statement accurate?
At best, we'd call it grossly misleading, though it's also highly familiar:
The exam was last given in 2018 and measures the performance of 15-year-olds around the world, with an emphasis on real-world skills. Typically administered every three years, it was delayed a year during the pandemic. Nearly 700,000 teenagers around the world took the exam in 2022.
The results are the latest indicator of an American education system that struggles to prepare all students from an early age, with proficiency in math dropping the longer students remain in the system. National test results last year also reported greater declines in math compared with reading, a subject that can be more influenced by what happens at home and was less affected by school closures.
Is that an accurate statement? Does the American education system, such as it is, "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?"
At best, we'd call that statement grossly misleading. Once again, and for the last time, we show you some of the basic data from the Reading Literacy test:
Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 579
U.S. white kids: 537
United States: 504
Our Asian-American kids vanquished the world. Our "white" kids basically scored off the charts.
When you look at data like those, does it really seem that American schools "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?" Also, does it look that way when you look at some of the basic data from the Science Literacy test?
Average scores, Science Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 578
U.S. white kids: 537
South Korea: 528
United States: 499
Needless to say, everyone's schools could be better.
That said, when you look at the Science Literacy data, does it look like our American schools "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?" Or does it look like two major groups of American kids are performing at the highest levels recorded around the world?
No international testing program could ever be perfect. Over the past twenty-plus years, the PISA has been one of two such international programs.
(The other is the TIMSS.)
In certain ways, it seems to us that the PISA may have some substantial quirks. But based upon these new data from the PISA, did it really make sense when Times readers were told, in paragraph 6 of a lengthy report, that our stumblebum American schools "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?"
Yes, that claim was highly familiar. But did it really make sense?
A person might claim that Mervosh was only referring to the PISA math scores when she offered that assessment. In our view, that would be an overly generous reading of that gloomy statement.
(For whatever reason, American kids have always performed much less well in that third "domain" when they take the PISA. For whatever reason, American kids score much better in math when they take the more straightforward TIMSS.)
In our view, that would be a generous reading of that gloomy statement by Mervosh. That said, even in Math Literacy, one group of American kids scored near the top of the world on the PISA.
A second group of American kids produced a fully respectable average score. We'll post the data below.
Even in the PISA math test, two major groups of American kids produced average scores which were either decent or quite good! That said, our American schools have tended to struggle with two other groups of our good, decent kids.
That is a problem we still all live with. It's also a problem which newspapers like the New York Times have persistently refused to confront, report or acknowledge.
How strange! At some point in her lengthy report, Mervosh drew almost every possible comparison under the sun, involving all sorts of demographic groups.
She tells us how American boys performed on the PISA as compared to American girls. She tells us how higher-income American kids performed as compared to their lower-income peers.
She tells us what the achievement gaps were like between "the highest and lowest U.S. performers." She describes the performance by "students from disadvantaged backgrounds," without explaining the specific meaning of that fuzzy designation.
The one comparison she never makes—the one set of gaps she never reports—involves the gaps which obtain between our struggling nation's major "racial" / ethnic student groups.
Those achievement gaps were disappeared in the Mervosh report. In a highly familiar editorial judgment, the average scores produced by those four major groups were never mentioned.
At this point, let's state the obvious:
It's painful to look at the very large achievement gaps which obtain between our four major racial / ethnic groups. Those gaps reflect our brutal American history and its continuing fallout.
It's painful to look at the different average scores recorded by those groups of kids. It's painful to look at those average scores. Also, it may seem embarrassing.
Presumably for those reasons, entities like the New York Times and the Washington Post have always chosen to disappear those painful achievement gaps. In the Mervosh report, every other type of comparison is cited. Comparisons between those four major groups simply never appear.
Let's be clear! Many black and Hispanic kids do brilliantly well on tests like the PISA and the TIMSS. Many white and Asian-American kids produce very low scores.
(There's a lot of unhappiness in those low scores, no matter who has produced them.)
That said, very large gaps obtain between the average scores produced by these four major groups. At the New York Times, for reasons only the Times can explain, the struggle involving our good and decent black school kids isn't important enough to be reported, not even every three or four years.
For the record, this is a long-standing editorial decision by the New York Times. Almost surely, Sarah Mervosh, a good decent person, didn't make this decision.
On its face, this is peculiar work. It's also who we actually are, and who we've always been.
How did American kids do in math? Below, you see the relevant scores from the Math Literacy test.
Painful gaps can be seen in those average scores. Those gaps help define one of the major actual ways our schools continue to struggle.
Painful gaps can be seen in these scores. The New York Times disappeared those scores and those gaps, as did the Washington Post:
Average scores, Math Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian kids 543
U.S. white kids 498
United States 465
U.S. Hispanic kids 439
U.S. black kids 412
The struggle we all continue to live with is sitting right there in those (average) scores. That's "the problem we all live with"—unless you read the Washington Post or the New York Times.
As noted, and for what it's worth: American kids have always scored much better in math on the more straightforward TIMSS. For Kevin Drum's brief assessment, click here.
We'll note that two groups of American kids outscored press corps darling Finland in math. Even on the PISA!