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