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International Test Scores Predict Nothing

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Uh-oh! Another study has appeared warning that we are falling behind other nations on international standardized tests.

The National Assessment Governing Board released the results of a study comparing the performance of U.S. states to nations that participated in the 2011 TIMSS.

Students in most U.S. states were above the international average but the nations known for their test-taking culture dominated the results. That is, the top performing nations were Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan.

The usual hand-wringers were wringing their hands about how awful we were, how terribly we compare to those at the top.

The reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post tried to reach me but I was at an all-day event in Vermont-New Hampshire and did not see their messages.

If I had responded, I would have said this: International test scores do not predict the economic future. Once a nation is above a basic threshold of literacy, the numbers reflect how good that nation is at test-taking. They are meaningless as economic predictors.

In 1964, when the first international test was offered in two grades to 12 nations, we came in last and next to last in the two grades but went on to have a stronger economy in the next half century than the other 11 nations that were tested.

In 1983, a federal report called "A Nation at Risk" warned that our international test scores were a symbol of a "rising tide of mediocrity" and that we were losing our major industries to Japan and Germany because of our terrible schools. As it happened, we lost our automobile industry to Japan not because of our schools or test scores but because of our short-sighted auto executives, who did not anticipate the demand for fuel-efficient cars.

Meanwhile, despite those test scores, our country continued to grow its economy, to be the most militarily powerful and technologically innovative nation in the world, and Japan went into a prolonged period of economic stagnation.

In the latest round of international test scores, Japan outscored us. So what? Singapore, Korea, and the other Asian tigers have cultures that put incredible pressure on young people to get high test scores.

The Washington Post had a sensible comment by someone who studies labor markets:

Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, said hand-wringing over international tests is misguided.

"What's really peculiar about the whole test-score hysteria is that they use it as a proxy for the U.S. 'competitiveness and innovation' as though we don't have actual measurements," said Salzman, an expert in science and engineering labor markets and the globalization of innovation. "The country continues to lead on innovation, economic performance and all the results that these things are supposed to indicate."

There are more than enough strong math and science students in U.S. classrooms to fill future jobs in this country, he said.

"It doesn't mean we don't want to improve education," Salzman said. "But the fear that's driving it is unfounded. The problem we have is not at the top or at the middle. It's at the bottom. That's what gets lost in averages and rankings."

Professor Salzman is right.

The international test scores are poor economic barometers.

What matters most in the decades ahead is the extent to which we cultivate creativity, ingenuity, curiosity, innovation, and thinking differently. These qualities have been the genius of American culture. These traits are not measured by standardized tests.

The students who learn to select the correct box on a multiple-choice question are not the inventors and innovators of the future. They are the clerks of the future.