Contradictory International Test Scores

K-12 Testing

Two recent international math tests produced contradictory results but a familiar round of breast-beating over the “mediocrity” of U.S. public school students in math and science, along with predictable warnings of impending economic doom.


One test, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), claims to measure 15-year-olds’ ability to apply math knowledge to real-world problems. This year’s results were widely interpreted as showing the U.S. slipping in comparison to other industrialized nations. Typical was the response of Susan Traiman of the Business Roundtable, who said, “It’s very disturbing for business if the capacity to take what you know.and apply it to something novel is difficult for U.S. teenagers.”


A second international math test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), had U.S. students on average faring better, with eighth graders continuing to improve in math and science, moving them up in rank compared with other nations.


Despite the contradictory results, proponents of test-driven reform tended to accentuate the negative and predict that the nation’s economic standing is imperiled if something is not done to improve U.S. student achievement. Similar claims have been made repeatedly—including during the economic boom years of the 1990s—since they were advanced in the still widely quoted “A Nation at Risk” report in 1983.


Those stoking panic over U.S. students’ comparative math and science achievement neglect to ask whether more of the same frenzied focus on standardized test results that has been the norm for at least a decade will produce the gains they say are needed. If the increasing tendency to focus narrowly on test preparation to boost test scores and narrow gaps hasn’t produced the desired results by now, why would more of the same be the answer?


Also unacknowledged is the role of vast gaps in resources available to affluent and disadvantaged students in the standing of American students compared with international peers. As Paul Barton, of the Educational Testing Service, wrote in Unfinished Business: More Measured Approaches in Standards-based Reform, “The distribution of performance in the United States is very wide—wider than in any other developed country.” Rather than overall mediocrity, these international comparisons result from averaging the high-ranking performance of affluent American students with the low, in some cases, third-world level, performance of America’s poorest children. Educational psychologist Gerald Bracey points out that TIMSS results in schools with less than 10 percent poverty had U.S. students ranked third in the world in fourth-grade math, sixth in eighth-grade math and first in fourth-grade science.


With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Finland’s students rose to the top or close to it on both the PISA and TIMSS tests. Finland puts a premium on resource equity and invests more heavily in schools for immigrant children. Meanwhile, Finland avoids standardized testing: the 15-year-old Finns who performed so well on PISA were taking a standardized test for the first time.