As a nation, we worry far too much about PISA scores, which rank and rate students according to standardized tests. Many nations have higher average scores than we do, yet we are the most powerful nation on earth -- economically, technologically, and militarily. What do the PISA scores mean?
In his new book, Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and the Worst) Education in the World, Yong Zhao says that the East Asian nations have the top scores because they do heavy-duty test prep. One thing is clear: the PISA scores do not predict the future of our economy. They never have. Our students have never had high scores on international tests, not since the first international test of math was administered in 1964, and our seniors scored last among 12 nations. We went on over the half-century since then to outcompete the other 11 nations with higher test scores.
Let's look at some other international measures, those that reflect the well-being of children. According to a UNICEF survey, we lead the industrialized nations of the world in child poverty. (Actually, UNICEF finds that Romania has even higher child poverty than we do, but anyone who has been to that nation would not rank the mighty, rich, and powerful U.S. in the same league with Romania, still struggling to overcome 50 years of Communist misrule and impoverishment.) When it comes to child poverty, we are number 1.
While we obsess over test scores, we ignore other important indicators -- for example, the proportion of children who are enrolled in a quality preschool program. The Economist magazine published an international survey of 45 nations, in relation to quality and availability, and the United States ranked 24th, tied with the United Arab Emirates. The Nordic countries led the survey with near universal high-quality preschool.
Another number reflects our government's failure to invest in what works. The March of Dimes in partnership with other organizations conducted an international survey of the availability of good prenatal care programs for pregnant women. Preterm births are the leading cause of death among newborns; it is also a significant cause of cognitive and developmental disabilities. Of 184 nations surveyed, we ranked 131, tied with Thailand, Turkey, and Somalia.This problem could easily be solved by just a few of our billionaire philanthropists.
So what do you think matters most? The test scores of 15-year-old students or the health and well-being of our young children? Might there be a connection?
Standardized tests are an accurate predictor of family income and education. Reduce poverty, and scores will rise. Scores on the SAT college admission test, for example, mirror a student's family background. Students from the poorest families score the lowest, and students from the richest families score the highest. The gap between those at the bottom and those at the top is 400 points. As one Wall Street Journal blogger put it, the SAT might just as well be known as the Student Affluence Test.
Our policymakers' obsession with test scores is unhealthy and counter-productive. They think the way to raise scores is to make the standards and curriculum harder and to test more. Today, little children are taking 8 or 9 hours of tests, and as the standards grow "harder," the failure rate goes higher. We are the most over-tested nation in the world, and the benefits accrue to testing corporations like Pearson and McGraw-Hill, not to children. The tests themselves are a dubious measure. There are better ways to know whether children are learning than standardized tests. Why else would our elites send their children to schools that seldom use them? What's good enough for the children of Bill Gates and Barack Obama should be good enough for other people's children.
We should stop obsessing about test scores and start obsessing about the health and well-being of children and their families. The gains would be far more valuable than a few points on a standardized test. That is the only way we will assure children a good start in life and a fair chance to succeed in our society.