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The Test Ranking Obsession

"The verbal splendor resulting from recent charges that the schools are not teaching reading right, and older charges that they aren't teaching anything right, is undeniably exhilarating." If you think that these words were written about schools today, you'd be wrong. They were by Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and appeared in an essay published in Harper's in Sept. 1955 ("Public schools are better than you think").

Americans love rankings. In fact, the only magazine in this country that outsells U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of colleges and universities issue is Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. Beyond the world of publishing, however, we fixate on tests of international competition as alleged evidence of educational quality. The results from the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study showed our fourth- and eighth-grade students continuing to lag behind their counterparts in several East Asian and some European countries. The results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study showed our fourth-graders coming in sixth. (Students in Florida, which broke out results separately, achieved a higher average score than students in the U.S. over all.)

What should we make of this data? I've been closely following these two tests and the Program of International Student Assessment for years because I've long recognized the impact that the outcomes have on public opinion. It would be disingenuous to say that the tests are meaningless. But at the same time, I think their significance has been wildly overstated.

To understand why, it's first necessary to keep in mind that tiny differences in scores can dramatically affect each country's ranking. When scores bunch together, as they often do, I doubt that ranking countries on these slight differences means much in the overall scheme of things. Of course, it's always a source of national pride to be No. 1, but from a practical point of view how important is it?

Second, an exam meritocracy and a talent meritocracy are not the same. In Jan. 2006, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, former education minister of Singapore, made that point eminently clear ("We All Have a Lot to Learn," Newsweek). He said that American students test much worse than Singapore students, but they seem to do better in life and in the real world. That's quite an admission because Singapore's students consistently rank near the top on international tests. As Shanmugaratnam explained, "There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority."

Finally, too little emphasis is given to the role that poverty plays in test results. The U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any country in the industrialized world. (Only Mexico has a higher rate, but I don't consider Mexico to be industrialized.) Research has shown time and again the correlation between poverty and performance. For example, middle-class students in suburban schools score near the top on tests of international competition. If poverty is an excuse, as critics assert, then how do they explain this finding? I've never heard a convincing answer.

Frankly, I don't expect any of the above to affect the attention given to rankings by the media. After all, they live for their ratings as well. But I hope it helps put the issue in proper context. There's too much on the line to let these tests dominate.


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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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