The news reports say that the test scores of American students on the latest PISA test are "stagnant," "lagging," "flat," etc.
The U.S. Department of Education would have us believe -- yet again -- that we are in an unprecedented crisis and that we must double down on the test-and-punish strategies of the past dozen years.
The myth persists that once our nation led the world on international tests, but we have fallen from that exalted position in recent years.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Here is the background history that you need to know to interpret the PISA score release, as well as Secretary Duncan's calculated effort to whip up national hysteria about our standing in the international league tables.
The U.S. has never been first in the world, nor even near the top, on international tests.
Over the past half century, our students have typically scored at or near the median, or even in the bottom quartile.
International testing began in the mid-1960s with a test of mathematics. The First International Mathematics Study tested 13-year-olds and high-school seniors in 12 nations. American 13-year-olds scores significantly lower than students in nine other countries and ahead of students in only one. On a test given only to students currently enrolled in a math class, the U.S. students scored last, behind those in the 11 other nations. On a test given to seniors not currently enrolled in a math class, the U.S. students again scored last.
The First International Science Study was given in the late 1960s and early 1970s to 10-year-olds, 14-year-olds, and seniors. The 10-year-olds did well, scoring behind only the Japanese; the 14-year-olds were about average. Among students in the senior year of high schools, Americans scored last of eleven school systems.
In the Second International Mathematics Study (1981-82), students in 15 systems were tested. The students were 13-year-olds and seniors. The younger group of U.S. students placed at or near the median on most tests. The American seniors placed at or near the bottom on almost every test. The "average Japanese students achieved higher than the top 5 percent of the U.S. students in college preparatory mathematics" and "the algebra achievement of our most able students (the top 1 percent) was lower than that of the top 1 percent of any other country." (The quote is from Curtis C. McKnight and others, The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. Mathematics from an International Perspective, pp. 17, 26-27). I summarized the international assessments from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s in a book called National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide (Brookings, 1995).
The point worth noting here is that U.S. students have never been top performers on the international tests. We are doing about the same now on PISA as we have done for the past half century.
Does it matter?
In my recent book, Reign of Error, I quote extensively from a brilliant article by Keith Baker, called "Are International Tests Worth Anything?," which was published by Phi Delta Kappan in October 2007. Baker, who worked for many years as a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, had the ingenious idea to investigate what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Mathematics test in 1964. He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that "the higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth-the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen." He found no relationship between a nation's economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. "clobbered the world," with more patents per million people than any other nation.
Baker wrote that a certain level of educational achievement may be "a platform for launching national success, but once that platform is reached, other factors become more important than further gains in test scores. Indeed, once the platform is reached, it may be bad policy to pursue further gains in test scores because focusing on the scores diverts attention, effort, and resources away from other factors that are more important determinants of national success." What has mattered most for the economic, cultural, and technological success of the U.S., he says, is a certain "spirit," which he defines as "ambition, inquisitiveness, independence, and perhaps most important, the absence of a fixation on testing and test scores."
Baker's conclusion was that "standings in the league tables of international tests are worthless."
I agree with Baker. The more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer.
Thirty years ago, a federal report called "A Nation at Risk" warned that we were in desperate trouble because of the poor academic performance of our students. The report was written by a distinguished commission, appointed by the Secretary of Education. The commission pointed to those dreadful international test scores and complained that "on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times." With such terrible outcomes, the commission said, "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." Yet we are still here, apparently the world's most dominant economy. Go figure.
Despite having been proved wrong for the past half century, the Bad News Industry is in full cry, armed with the PISA scores, expressing alarm, fright, fear, and warnings of imminent economic decline and collapse.
Never do they explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world's leading economy, with the world's most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce.
From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores:
Lesson 1: If they mean anything at all, the PISA scores show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation's relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.
Lesson 2: The PISA scores burst the bubble of the alleged "Florida miracle" touted by Jeb Bush. Florida was one of three states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida -- that participated in the PISA testing. Massachusetts did very well, typically scoring above the OECD average and the U.S. average, as you might expect of the nation's highest performing state on NAEP. Connecticut also did well. But Florida did not do well at all. It turns out that the highly touted "Florida model" of testing, accountability, and choice was not competitive, if you are inclined to take the scores seriously. In math, Florida performed below the OECD average and below the U.S. average. In science, Florida performed below the OECD average and at the U.S. average. In reading, Massachusetts and Connecticut performed above both the OECD and U.S. average, but Florida performed at average for both.
Lesson 3: Improving the quality of life for the nearly one-quarter of students who live in poverty would improve their academic performance.
Lesson 4: We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students' imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administration in education, we will not only not get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.
Let others have the higher test scores. I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people, on its character, persistence, ambition, hard work, and big dreams, none of which are ever measured or can be measured by standardized tests like PISA.
Diane Ravitch is an author, historian and professor of education at NYU. Her latest book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.