Stay calm and don’t panic. You’re about to start seeing a whole new wave of alarmist rhetoric over the state of U.S public education with the release yesterday of two new international tests. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS, conducted every 5 years) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, conducted every 4 years) both just announced their 2011 results. [TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center]
This is where headlines, such as the one in today’s Post-Gazette, start to scream things like “U.S. Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show.” Then the hand-wringing commences over the fact that the U.S. ranks behind South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (in fact, these tests put us 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science). [Post-Gazette, 12-12-12] But the headlines and articles inevitably fail to mention several key points.
First, the U.S. has never been at the top of these comparative tests. In fact, in the 1960s when the first international math and science tests were conducted, U.S. students scored at the bottom in nearly every category. Over the past fifty years, U.S. students have actually improved – not declined as so many of the pundits would have you believe. [For an excellent summary and analysis, see Yong Zhao, 12-11-12] Rather than falling behind our international peers, U.S. students have been making slow gains. We may not be where we want to be, but the “falling” metaphor implies the exact opposite direction of where we are headed.
Second, these tests are often comparing apples and oranges. For example, some countries do not test all of their students, particularly in older grades as they siphon off those who will not go on to college. In essence, this leaves just their university-bound students to take the exams compared to all U.S. students, college-bound or not. [Dave F. Brown, Why America’s Public Schools are the Best Place for Kids: Reality vs. Negative Perceptions, Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, p. 42.]
Third, what these international tests really seem to report is the effect of the United State’s unbelievably high child poverty rate. When you look just at students from our well-resourced schools taking these tests, they actually score at the top of the heap. [For an excellent analysis, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 12-15-10] But a whopping 26% of our country’s children from birth to age five live in poverty – yes, 26 percent – and over 23% of our kids under the age of 18 live in poverty. Our child poverty rate puts us second in the entire developed world – only Romania scores worse than us. [See “Poverty and Public Education”]
Valerie Strauss, education writer for the Washington Post, said the real headline we ought to be seeing is, “U.S. low-poverty schools do much better than high-poverty schools in international tests.” She points out that this holds true for all standardized tests and “that continues to be the real story in U.S. education, not how American students’ scores stack up against Singapore or the South Koreans.” [Valerie Strauss, Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 12-11-12]
The fourth point we ought to remember is the way in which the hype over these international tests has reinforced the notion that we need ever more testing to measure our children. I am not opposed to student assessment – I want our teachers to be able to assess student learning using valid tools. Bring on the weekly spelling quiz or end of unit test. But I am opposed to high-stakes-testing in which our children are subjected to mountains of high-pressure, poorly designed tests, which are then used to label and punish our kids, our teachers, and our schools. Yinzercation’s intrepid librarian Sheila May-Stein has written a heartfelt description of what it’s like to be a teacher forced to give these high-stakes, standardized tests in our schools. I encourage everyone to read her piece, “Outside the Lines,” as we start a discussion around Opting-Out of this testing madness.
Rather than wringing our hands over how far we rank below Taiwan, we ought to be fretting over how we will address child poverty and get to the business of how we will adequately and equitably fund our public schools.