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Why the PISA Debates Are Misleading -- and Useful

Posted: 12/13/10 02:02 PM ET

Sam Dillon's front-page New York Times story on December 7 about students in Shanghai trouncing U.S. student scores on the global PISA exam has stirred quite a debate, as it was clearly intended to. Dillon quoted Reagen-era U.S. Department of Education official Chester Finn comparing the score gap to "Sputnik," the Russian satellite that launched the "space race" a generation ago. ABC News called the PISA results a "wake-up call." The Times online closed comments on Dillon's article after receiving 712 of them.

Much debate centers on China: why China leads PISA scores, China's focus on rote testing, China's challenges in promoting creativity, and critical thinking. China's "high test scores aren't everything," one Times online commenter writes plaintively. Other debaters question PISA test results. Dillon quotes Bush-era DOE researcher Mark Schneider demurring "there was no evidence of cheating" in Shanghai scores. A National Review blog derides "bogus" comparisons between Shanghai municipal scores and U.S. national scores (a point Dillon also raised); National Review comments rage against Chinese cheating and censorship. Even the excellent James Fallows, while reminding us to take PISA scores seriously, spends most of his blog on possible statistical flaws.

Methinks the bloggers doth protest too much. China is not the issue. Chinese statistics are not the issue. The statistical issues Dillon and Fallows discuss may explain why Shanghai significantly topped scores from ALL non-Chinese nations tested. They don't explain why the United States ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of 34 countries surveyed. Or why students across Europe excel in two languages (three in Finland, which also tops the science ratings) while ours score in English below countries for which English is not a native language.

The truth, the real news, is that there is no news here. These results should be no surprise. The long slide in American student performance relative to global peers has been a constant drumbeat, paralleling the domestic failures of our schools shown in Waiting for 'Superman'. The DOE's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), tracking math and science scores since 1995, has long found us in 15th place globally or worse. A 2005 panel on "Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio" concluded that given poor U.S. scores, "high ranking within the United States is no longer enough" to count as global excellence.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the perennially sad comparisons between United States' and global scores. The left tends to focus on poor teacher salaries and budgets that favor the military over education. The right tends to focus on poor parenting, teacher's unions, and an overgrowth of educational bureaucracy. Many also blame our students themselves. "PhD scientist," commenting on the Times online, fumed "Most of the people who work around me did not grow up in the U.S... There is a complete lack of interest [among U.S. students] in learning anything of economic value." Those criticisms may well ALL be right -- none of those factors are mutually exclusive.

The real question is how to get past the politics, and the blame games, and work together to better our educational results. While China is not the real issue, if a Sputnik-style push to do better based on being trounced by Shanghai helps spur a real answer, that's fine by me. Together with my frequent co-author Rebecca Weiner, I have long focused in my writing on the need for stronger global awareness, more foreign languages, and greater overall excellence in our educational systems. If the PISA test results give us the impetus we need to truly prioritize academic education -- in our families, communities, governments, and schools -- then all the hype will be more than worthwhile.

What do you think will help the United States improve its test scores and better prepare our students for global competition?

 

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