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Caution on Tests of International Competition

The release of a set of proposed national academic standards on Mar. 10 is likely to intensify interest in three tests that purport to measure the ability of the U.S. to compete in the new global economy. The trio are known by their acronyms: PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. Although they are given periodically to samples of students in countries around the globe, they are given too much importance.

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests 15-year-old students in reading, math and science every three years. The test is designed to measure the ability of students to apply their skills and knowledge to real-life situations, rather than to demonstrate mastery of a specific school curriculum.

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) assesses math and science skills in grades 4 and 8 using short stems and mostly multiple-choice questions. Unlike PISA, it measures knowledge of school-based curriculum.

PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) measures reading comprehension of 4th graders. It consists of a written test and a background questionnaire. The latter determines reading behaviors and attitudes. The former examines reading for literary experience and reading to acquire and use information.

Because Americans love rankings, it's not at all surprising that the results of the three tests are scrutinized. But it's important to remember that even a miniscule change in a country's score from one year to another can result in the country moving one full rank higher or lower. Moreover, scores are often closely bunched together, making comparisons problematic. As a result, the tests should be considered only a rough estimate. But that's not how they are perceived.

Singapore's former minister of education Tharman Shanmugaratnam put the entire controversy in proper perspective in an interview in Newsweek: "We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. ... These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America." ("We All Have a Lot to Learn," Jan. 9, 2006).

These remarks came from the highest educational authority in a country whose students consistently score near the top on the tests in question. There's a lesson here that we ignore at our expense as we obsess over why we're not No. 1: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." In case you think this is an excuse, rather than an explanation, the author was Albert Einstein.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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