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How Do Our Test Scores Stack Up Internationally?


Q. Are schools in other countries, such as Korea, Japan and Germany, really better than ours?

No. Those standardized tests you read about, that place American students 'way down at the bottom of the barrel, are often unfair comparisons because of a lot of factors that are not often exposed. And there are many more measurements of school quality than scores - including a nation's productivity and health - that show that the USA is OK.


Language differences account for a large amount of the score discrepancies. English is a complex language. So, for example, there may be 50 synonyms in English for the word "sanguine." Another language may have only three synonyms for "sanguine." Therefore, the same test question written in that language makes it an easier test question by far. That's what happen with Finland, a small European country which inexplicably finishes at or near the top on all kinds of global test comparisons. It isn't that their kids are brainiacs; they just have a simpler language than most other countries.


Similarly, the dialect in which the test is written may provide a huge advantage for some nations' scores over America's, since we have standard English, or at least we're trying to hang on to proper English. We also test an honest cross-section of students, whether they are rich or poor, rural or urban. In China, though, the tests usually are given in the dialects of the richer, urban students, who naturally do better than their poorer, rural counterparts, who may not even have access to the test. It works as a "gatekeeper" that produces a higher test score average than it really should be.


As for math differences, keep in mind that Asian and European nations view K-12 education as mostly a job training endeavor, not a process of equipping young people for citizenship. In Japan, where children are slotted into "career paths" at a relatively young age, many children will receive no math education past the early middle-school years. It's seen as a waste of time and resources if their career paths don't require higher-level math knowledge. That means they will be "shut out" of secondary math and college math and all the jobs that require those skills. So there's deadline pressure to get kids ready for those all-important high school placement tests. The result is that Japanese schools give all students much more intensive math instruction, including algebra, than American schoolchildren receive, especially in later grade school and through middle school. No wonder Japanese 8th graders as a group may beat ours. And no wonder Japanese 12th graders beat ours: they're a hand-picked and hothoused minority against our entire student body.


Demand less "spin" and more facts, then judge accordingly.


Homework: Book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle.


By Susan Darst Williams Testing 06 2008


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