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International Test Illiteracy

Even the brightest columnists sometimes reveal their woeful misunderstanding of testing. The latest reminder was Thomas L. Friedman's "Teaching for America," which was published in the New York Times on Nov. 21. He asserted that critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication and ability to collaborate - the skills indispensable for success in a knowledge economy - are measured by the international tests currently in use. He then compounded his error by arguing that the reason other countries such as Finland and Denmark outscore the U.S. is because their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes.

Friedman makes no distinction between the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Each test has a different purpose. Lumping all three together is like lumping all antibiotics together, and then attempting to draw valid judgments about the results. But that doesn't seem to bother Friedman in denouncing public schools en masse. As readers of this column know, I warned against comparing schools in one country with schools in another country ("Caution on Comparing International Education Systems," May 28).

Friedman then jumps to the conclusion that the failure of the U.S. to finish on or near the top of these tests is the fault of teachers because they are not the best and brightest. There's no question that recruiting highly qualified teachers is vital to improving overall educational quality. But let's not assume that rankings alone are any guarantee. Just as not all graduates from medical schools who outrank their classmates have other qualities necessary for a successful clinical practice (e.g. bedside manner), not all graduates from colleges who outrank their classmates possess the wherewithal for effectiveness in the classroom (e.g. charisma).

The warning about a crisis in education in this country and its dire effects on our ability to compete in the global economy is not new. It goes back to "A Nation at Risk," which was published in 1983 and subsequently repeated by other fearmongers. I addressed this issue in an op-ed that was published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Nov. 22 ("Economic and social failures blamed on schools"). I also pointed out what Singapore's minister of education said about the subject. It comes down to this: The U.S. has a talent meritocracy, while other countries have an exam meritocracy.

What is rarely written is that the appalling dropout rate and dreadful test scores are almost always limited to schools serving disadvantaged students. That's not surprising. They come from such chaotic backgrounds that their teachers too often have to practice triage instead of focusing on the academic lessons they've planned. But critics prefer to tar with a broad brush all public schools. The failure to distinguish between schools confuses taxpayers at a time when their support is crucial. But I doubt that things will change. Supporters of privatization will use every available stratagem to achieve their goal.

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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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