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Put PISA in Perspective

The media seemed mesmerized by the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment, as if the rankings portended the future of the U.S. Before jumping to any such absurd conclusion, readers need to understand more about the nuts and bolts of the test. I grant that this process is technical and dry, but it is the only way of knowing if valid inferences are being made about PISA. You've got to look under the hood of a car if you want to know why the engine is malfunctioning.

PISA measures learning that has taken place since birth, but not necessarily what students have learned during their previous year in school. (PISA has been given every three years since 2000 to 15-year-olds.) As a result, it's extremely difficult to disentangle school effects from non-school effects. Although this distinction is crucial, it is given short shrift by the media in their reportage and commentary.

It's also vital to determine if a true sample of students from each country is being tested. It's here that China's results are highly suspect. About 5,100 students only from Shanghai were chosen. But Shanghai is hardly representative of China because it is an industrialized center with scores of modern universities. In contrast, the U.S. selected students from both public and private schools across the nation.

Most important, the entire matter is overblown. According to a study in the International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership in April 2008, the relationship between student achievement rankings on international assessments of reading, mathematics and science and a nation's future economic growth is untenable and not causal. Yet you wouldn't know this by the hyperbolic lead in AOL News: "China has dropped an educational bomb on the United States ... " ("Why Are Chinese Students Walloping US Kids on Test? Dec. 7).

None of the above seems to sink in. In fact, any explanations are immediately labeled as excuses. This attitude effectively cuts off a rational discussion because it puts the other side on the defensive. In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 8, Chester E. Finn Jr. acknowledges virtually all of my points and yet curiously concludes that PISA's "international rankings are widely trusted as a reliable barometer of how young people in different countries compare on core academic subjects" ("A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Education").

I'm not saying that PISA is unimportant. But we have heard alarmist cries about scores on international tests for decades. In April 1983, "A Nation at Risk" based its bleak prediction on international standardized tests that ranked Japanese students ahead of their American counterparts. But this scare thesis failed to pass muster when Japan's economy tanked in 1990. Starting in 1991, the U.S. entered the longest period of economic prosperity in its history. And the U.S. is still ranked No. 1 by the World Economic Forum. Isn't it fair to ask if other factors are at play here?

So let me raise another point. If reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are as concerned about the economic future of the U.S. as they maintain, then why do they not say a word about the performance of private schools? After all, these students also took PISA, and are going to enter the workplace or go to college too. Shouldn't reformers ask why private schools are not doing a better job?

The facile answer is that private schools are not supported by taxpayers. Therefore, they are not accountable in the same way that public schools are. Technically, this is correct. But if the real goal is to prepare all students to compete in the new global economy, don't private schools have a responsibility as well?

I maintain that if all schools were privatized tomorrow, critics would suddenly become mute. I say that because I believe the endless attacks on public schools are a thinly disguised tactic used to divert attention away from the ultimate objective. PISA and other tests are simply handy tools to undermine confidence.

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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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