The Circle School Blog

An occasional thing

The Circle School Blog

Are you chagrined? In the last round of international PISA rankings of student achievement, the U.S. is far down the list. Among 34 developed countries, American students finished 12th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.

Is this a problem? Maybe not.

We hear urgent talk of “falling behind” and “global competition” from politicians and educators seeking more money and more power to conform children to standards. But the arguments are based on false assumptions.

First, low test scores are not new. American students have never been near the top, since the beginning of international student assessments back in the 1960s. American students’ low scores have been consistent through five decades of American dominance in global trade and technology. As education scholar Diane Ravitch writes, “our nation has never had high scores on [international tests] … [y]et our nation went on to become the most powerful economy in the world.”

Second, there is no evidence linking high test scores to national economic success. There hasn’t been much research, but the available evidence shows the opposite: a statistically significant inverse correlation. Countries with higher student test scores have had lower economic success. Yes, you read that right. To put it the other way around, countries with lower test scores have seen greater economic results than countries with high test scores. The U.S. gets poor grades in school, but thrives in the world beyond. (Do you know any kids like that?)

Why the gap between test scores and economic success? Among other reasons, I think writer Gregory Ferenstein captures what seems obvious to many: “The reason for the apparent disconnect is because schools don’t prepare students for the real world, so broad educational attainment will have a weak correlation with economic power.” Reflect on your own school experience and see if you agree. Schools don’t prepare students for the real world.

This is important. Massive public funding has been poured into education — nearly $100 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus alone. Three big, expensive government initiatives have all been launched on the language of global competition: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core State Standards (the national uniform curriculum movement).

Fear of “falling behind” and failure in “global competition” are appeals to emotion, but do not stand up to evidence, reason, and common sense. Evidence contradicts the political arguments. Reason suggests that standardizing children won’t cultivate creativity. And common sense says most schools immerse kids in a world unlike the one they will live in.

Of course all this talk of assessment and global competition treats children as raw materials in a government-run factory, rather than human beings with their own hopes, interests, and talents. Education policy should be centered on children and families, not money and power. Public funding should promote innovation and variety in schools, rather than uniformity and standards. It’s good for children, families, society and, yes, a thriving global economy.

-Jim Rietmulder



You can interactively explore the OECD’s PISA test results here. Or read a 72-page report, Highlights From PISA 2009, published by the U.S. Department of Education.

For more about the history of American students’ low rankings on international assessments, see this 1992 report from the U.S. Department of Education. (Discussing testing from the 1960s on, it says “students from the United States have fared quite poorly on these assessments, with their scores lagging behind those of students from other developed countries.”)

For more about the (non-)link between test scores and economic performance, see the new book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao (2012), or check out his lecture on YouTube.

Here’s the Ravitch quote.

For the Ferenstein quote, and more about test scores versus economic performance, see this TechCrunch article.