Makes You Proud To Be An American...(International School Test Results)
December 05, 2007, 05:04 PM
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I never know how seriously to take international school achievement tests, such as the newly released results for the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment that tests 15 year olds in the 57 richest countries in reading, math, and science. Math seems reasonably straight-forward to compare (although the order in which topics are presented in high school could mess up comparisons if the test expects some things that will only be taught later in that country). But how do you compare reading across dozens of languages? It sounds awfully dependent upon the lucidity of the translator.

I presume there are a lot of ways to game these tests if you really wanted to try. A commenter suggests that Finland, a perennial powerhouse in these rankings, dumps more students into special ed classes off limits to testers. Or it could be that Finland has fewer immigrants. (Finland's traditional main minority are prosperous Swedish-speakers.) Or it could be that the lack of underperforming minorities helps Finland concentrate on practical ways to improve educations, whereas in the U.S., educational strategy is dysfunctional due to the need to not think about the Bell Curve gaps. Who really knows?

But maybe it all doesn't much matter, since the international test results seem to correlate with Lynn and Vanhanen's IQ scores reasonably well.

Anyway, here's the Financial Times' summary of the 2006 PISA:

Asia-Pacific’s strong showing is one of the clearest themes of the Pisa survey, which was carried out in 57 countries that account for 90 per cent of the world gross domestic product. The region contributes five of the top 10 in the mathematics and science league tables, and four of the top 10 in reading – thanks to strong contributions from Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Australia and New Zealand. Mainland China did not participate.

But the league tables show Finland is the most consistently high performer – repeating its sterling performance in the last survey in 2003. It comes top in science, and second in maths and in reading – where it is bested only by South Korea.

The US, the world’s largest economy, is below the OECD average in science and maths, and fails even to make the tables in reading because a misprint in the test confused too many students and invalidated the results.

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?

At least we're not Mexico. PISA ranks students on a 7 stage scale from Below Level 1 up through Level 6. According to PISA, you need to be at least at Level 2 to actually start making use of all this book-learnin'. In the U.S. 10% of the kids are Below Level 1 in math, and 18% are at Level 1, for a total of 28% below the minimum level of any kind of math competence. In Mexico, however, twice that percentage, 56%, are at those two bottom levels, with 28% being Below Level 1. And that's after a sharp improvement since 2003. In other words, Mexico's 19 year olds are even less educated.

So, we can take pride that we aren't Mexico. Oh, except that lots of the worst students in Mexico are moving to America every day. Never mind ...

By the way, Mexico's high end in math isn't very good either — just 1% are at Levels 5 and 6, versus a little under 8% in the U.S. But we're pretty bad compared to 32% at the top two levels in Taiwan and 24% in Finland.

Nine countries out of 57 did even worse than Mexico in math: Montenegro, Indonesia, Jordan, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Tunisia, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan. (The study was not conducted in any sub-Saharan African country.)