U.S. global education ranking is misleading, School of Education scholar argues

Jan. 24, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

“The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality, instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a 2010 press release responding to test results showing large gaps between the national performance of American students and students in high-performing nations such as Korea and Finland.

But a recently released study by Martin Carnoy, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and his research partner, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, argues that this assessment might be too harsh and that, in fact, international education ranking reports misinterpret the United States’ global ranking.

According to the study’s findings, a re-estimate would improve the United States’ place in the ranking of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries from 14th to 4th in reading and 25th to 10th in math based on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test administered in 2011.

The study describes these international ranking reports as “oversimplified, frequently exaggerated and misleading,” which for Carnoy presents a serious practical problem.
“These test scores are now playing a very important role, influencing policy research in many countries,” Carnoy said, “It’s very important to see whether the way the result is presented accurately reflects the quality of education system in the country.”

Carnoy and Rothstein’s study, “What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?” took a closer look at the PISA and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) databases and recalculated the United States’ student performance after accounting for the different social class composition of sampled students.

“The United States, compared to other developed countries, has a much higher fraction of low social class students taking the test,” Carnoy said.

The study found that disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform better than comparable students in similar post-industrial countries in reading, and perform about the same in math.

Meanwhile, comparisons of test score trends across time shows that the United States has made greater improvement in both math and reading than top-scoring countries, such as Korea, Canada and Finland.

“If you look at Korean students’ performance in reading compared to U.S. students’ performance, we see that our students are making gains, while Korean students are not,” Carnoy said.

The report also shows that in some middle- and upper-class groups where U.S. performance has not improved, comparable social class group performance in some top-scoring post-industrial countries has declined.

But while controlling for social class distribution would narrow the difference in average scores between these countries and the United States, it would not eliminate the gap.

At all points in the social class distribution, U.S. students perform worse than students in a group of top-scoring countries, according to the research. Carnoy wonders whether this is actually a problem that needs attention.

“Do we want to score as high as Korean students? Is this our single objective in our education system?” Carnoy asked. “Probably not.”

Carnoy attributed the discrepancy in test performance to greater investment of Korean parents on education outside of school by sending their children to for-profit private schools called hagwons, where students receive private, after-hour tutoring.

“I believe that the test scores of our students can go up if we are willing to spend as much money outside of school,” Carnoy said.

Despite what the authors say is an incorrect interpretation of international test rankings, Carnoy remarked that the ranking’s influence on our present education system is not necessarily “detrimental”.

“Our policy is oriented very heavily around school and teacher accountability,” Carnoy said, “We are also making many efforts to raise our curriculum standards and have our teachers meet up these standards.”

“However, first thing we have to do is to do a better job in identifying whether our system is improving, and we have done that in this paper,” he added.

In future research, Carnoy said he and Rothstein will examine the reasons for differences in academic performance across states where, within the same social classes and ethnic groups, there are wide gaps in test scores.

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