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Report Aims to Debunk 'Myth' About Glory Days of U.S. Achievement

When a fresh round of international data on student achievement came out recently, there was considerable angst expressed once again about the mediocre performance of the United States in comparison with other leading nations. A familiar part of that narrative—often invoked by politicians, commentators, and the news media—is the notion that the United States has somehow fallen from glory, that its students once led the world in academic performance.

But a new report from the Brookings Institution suggests that is simply a myth.

"The United States never led the world," the report says. "It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter."

To illustrate, the report examines the First International Math Study (FIMS), conducted in 1964. The United States ranked 11 out of the 12 participating countries, which included Australia, England, Finland, Germany, and Japan. Only Sweden scored lower. (The ranking is based on comparing the average scores of a sample of 13-year-olds who participated in each nation.)

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at Brookings who wrote the report, told me that FIMS was the first international effort he's aware of to compare the performance of students from around the world on a common assessment. (He said there was a smaller pilot study conducted in 1959, but those results were never released.)

U.S. performance on two more recent international exams may not be inspiring, but the report says it does not indicate a decline over time. The nation's results on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, have been "flat to slightly up since the test's inception" in 2000, and U.S. achievement on the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, has risen since 1995.

"We haven't fallen, we just haven't," Loveless told me. "We once were terrible and now we're mediocre. I think that's a more accurate description, but we've never had scores that we should be proud of."

The report also challenges the notion that Finland has the best educational system in the world. This idea comes from that country's leading performance on PISA, but Loveless says those results don't tell the whole story.

"Finland has a superb school system," the report says, "but, significantly, it scores at the very top only on PISA, not on other international assessments." Finland has a national curriculum more in sync with a "literacy" thrust, the report notes, making PISA a friendly judge in comparing Finnish students with students from other countries." In fact, the report points out that when PISA results first showed Finland to be the top country in math, a group of more than 200 Finnish mathematicians petitioned the country's education ministry to complain that regardless of what PISA indicated, students were arriving at universities inadequately prepared in math.

Finland stopped participating in TIMSS after the 1999 test, the report says. That year, it ranked 14th out of 38 participants.

"The lesson is that international test scores must be interpreted cautiously," the report says. "Much of what one may hear or read about them is misleading."

This analysis is actually one of three sections of an annual report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. I already wrote about section III a few weeks ago. Section II, meanwhile, looks at the achievement of states that won grants under the federal Race to the Top program. It's titled: "Who's Winning the Real Race to the Top?"

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