International Comparisons: A True Assessment of Public Education in the US or Not?

Posted on: Tue, 08/27/2019 - 09:00

A recent article confirmed what I have long believed—international comparisons of test scores just don’t add up!

It has become commonplace for newspapers and other media to bemoan the poor performance of American students when compared to students in a variety of other countries. These test comparisons have become the rallying call for more accountability and continue to undermine the successes of public education across the country.

In the article “The Pinata Theory of School Reform,” Dr. James Harvey debunks some of the myths about international comparisons. First, he notes that the test experts who developed these international assessments warned that they should never be used to rank countries. It seems few heeded their advice.

Dr. Harvey also talks about the fallacy in comparisons across countries when the testing population in each country is very different. In the United States we are inclusive, and our assessments are given to every 15-year-old student enrolled in our public schools. However, in many other countries there are many 15-year-old children who are excluded. For example, in China only about one-third of the 15-year-old students are tested. Chinese urban schools do not admit the children of rural laborers who migrate to the cities for work; they thereby exclude millions of students from school and from testing.

If you’d like to read the research report that supported Dr. Harvey’s article, the link is:

As we discuss how to best serve the students in America’s public schools, I hope the constant reference to international test scores will prompt a discussion on whether those comparisons make sense. Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time talking about how to eliminate the greatest barrier to a student’s academic success—poverty?