PISA Comparisons Don’t Hold Up to Scrutiny

Yes, as the NYT reports, the Shanghai students did better than the Americans, and we are shamefully, tragically behind our competitors in investing in education. But the idea that this was a valid test of Chinese–or even Shanghai–student performance is absurd. The article notes that the PISA testers “worked with Chinese authorities” but doesn’t question why they would or should have to. It also allows that the Shanghai kids were told the test was important and would reflect on their country. No other kid in the world taking this “standardized” test, and certainly no American, was treated in this way. The author tried to bring some balance by comparing performance by kids in highly educated Massachusetts in 2007, but that says more about the weakness of PISA’s approach than it does about US kids’ performance. How about this: give the test to kids in the most expensive Manhattan private schools, and tell the parents and the kids well ahead of time that the outcome will determine the prestige of their school (and thus the kids’ chances of getting into the best Ivy League schools). That might be comparable to the motivation the Shanghai test subjects, under the eye of Chinese authorities, would have felt.
American students and teachers have enough problems, and we are falling behind. We need to change our culture so that teachers are respected as we respect, say, investment bankers. We need to understand that education is a strategic investment, as the Chinese do. But that doesn’t mean journalists should believe the hype.

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