I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

International Test Score Freak Out!

It's like a reflex: international test scores come out, and reformy types like RiShawn Biddle instantly start bashing our horrible schools and stupid students:


The average score gap between the average American fourth-grader and a Singapore peer on the 2011Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which along with PISA and PIRLS, are the three main assessments of international student achievement. The between the two countries is 11 points lower than in 2003.
A word about Singapore:
Singapore has the world's highest percentage of millionaires, with one out of every six households having at least one million US dollars in disposable wealth. This excludes property, businesses, and luxury goods, which if included would further increase the number of millionaires, especially as property in Singapore is among the world's most expensive.[89]Despite its relative economic success, Singapore does not have a minimum wage, believing that it would lower its competitiveness. It also has one of the highest income inequality levels among developed countries, coming in just behind Hong Kong and in front of the United States.[90][91]
Acute poverty is rare in Singapore; the government has rejected the idea of a generous welfare system, stating that each generation must earn and save enough for its entire life cycle. There are, however, numerous means-tested 'assistance schemes' provided by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in Singapore for the needy, including some that pay out SGD 400 to SGD 1000 per month to each needy household, free medical care at government hospitals, money for children's school fees, rental of studio apartments for SGD 80 a month, training grants for courses, etc.[92][93][94] Also, Singapore is rated top in terms of net international investment position per capita.[95][96]
[emphasis mine]
It would be more apt to compare Singapore to Beverly Hills than the entire United States. In any case, couldn't it be that Singapore is an outlier? Shouldn't the US be compared to many other countries? To which Biddle says:


The rank of America’s fourth-graders in math. That’s one ranking higher than in 2003, when the U.S. was in 12th position. Meanwhile Singapore has remained  either the top-performing — or second place nation (after the Chinese province of Hong Kong) —  over that same period.
Out of how many? I can't blame Biddle too much for not bothering to ask; even the New York Times couldn't be bothered (Bob Somerby has a knack for pointing out the painfully obvious). As G.F. Brandenburg puts it:
Notice first of all that the US is #11 out of about 50, which puts it at the 78th percentile, or definitely in the top quarter of all nations participating. 
If you look carefully at the smeared-looking band to the right of the names of the countries, and if you read the legend, you see that EVERY SINGLE NATION has a significant gap between its best-achieving students and its lowest-achieving students. Including the USA. It does not seem like our gap is particularly wide or particularly narrow in comparison with the gaps in other countries. It looks to me like Romania’s might be the widest, and the gap in the Netherlands between the top and bottom students appears to be the narrowest.  We also ‘beat’ a lot of supposedly high-achieving, wealthy countries: Germany, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand 
So, not too bad, overall. No sign of crisis here.[emphasis mine]
On the 2009 PISA (another international comparison), New Zealand ran over everyone else. Would it be rational to declare a math crisis there in the wake of these results?

As I've said many times: focusing on rankings in test score comparisons is really, really dumb. England and Russia (542) beat us by one point (541) in 4th Grade math; previously-envied Finland (545) beats us by four points. That is nothing more than statistical noise; it means nothing. But getting the US to look as bad as possible is Biddle's stock in trade.

I've only just begun looking at the TIMMS, but it's clear Biddle misses the real conclusions to be drawn from the data:

- East Asia scores very, very well in these tests. But does that mean anything?

- The Untied States is close to the top of Western developed countries. But does that mean anything?

Probably not. As Yong Zhao says:
The Soviet Union, America’s archrival in national security during the Cold War, which supposedly had better education than the U.S., disappeared and the U.S. remains the dominant military power in the world.
Japan, which was expected to take over the U.S. because of its superior education in the 1980s, has lost its #2 status in terms of size of economy. Its GDP is about 1/3 of America’s. Its per capita GDP is about $10,000 less than that in the U.S.
The U.S. is the 6th wealthiest country in the world in 2011 in terms of per capita GDP[16]. It is still the largest economy in the world.
The U.S. ranked 5th out of 142 countries in Global Competitiveness in 2012 and 4th in 2011[17].
The U.S. ranked 2nd out 82 countries in Global Creativity, behind only Sweden[18] in 2011.
The U.S. ranked 1st in the number of patents filled or granted by major international patent offices in 2008, with 14,399 filings, compared to 473 filings from China[19], which supposedly has a superior education[20].
Obviously America’s poor education told by the numbers has not ruined its national security and economy. These numbers have failed to tell the story of the future.
Probably because these numbers don't mean a whole heck of a lot. In fact, there's really only one conclusion I take away from international scores like these that has actual policy ramifications:

In every country in the world, poverty correlates to test score performance. If you are a kid in an affluent family, you almost certainly will do better on tests than if you are a kid in a poor family - that's true in every country in the world.

Biddle doesn't like to talk about this. He'd rather drone on and on about stuff that simply does not matter:
This means we must build upon the first wave of reforms unleashed by No Child and continue the overhaul of American public education. As Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle mentioned today on the pages of the New York Times,  this includes providing all children with strong, comprehensive college preparatory curricula, and implementing Common Core standards to set the high floor for them. It also includes revamping how we recruit, train, evaluate, and reward teachers; develop stronger, more-entrepreneurial school leaders; expand the number of high-quality school options for all kids; provide all kids with strong college preparatory curricula; make parents the lead decision-makers in education and given them the tools they need to make smart decisions for their kids; and build cultures of genius in which the potential of all kids can be nurtured. And, contrary to the steps taken by the Obama administration with its arrogant and counterproductive effort to eviscerate No Child, we must also expand accountability, holding all the players in education accountable for doing right by our kids, no matter who they are or where they live.
Oh, please. Common Core is going to pull us up with Singapore? Building "cultures of genius"? What does that even mean? More reformy sound and fury, signifying nothing.

International test score freak outs are just another device to distract the public from the most obvious thing in the world. People like Biddle are paid to keep our eyes off an obvious truth that's right in front of our faces.


giuseppe said...

Singapore allows for corporal punishment of male students. It's rarely used but it is a real threat that can happen. Isn't Singapore a more or (not) less authoritarian city-state that allows caning for relatively minor offenses.
From Wikipedia: Corporal punishment-
Caning is a widely used form of legal corporal punishment in Singapore. It can be divided into several contexts: judicial, prison, reformatory, military, school, and domestic/private.

Of these, judicial caning, for which Singapore is best known, is the most severe. It is reserved for male criminals aged under 50, for a wide range of offences under the Criminal Procedure Code. Caning is also a legal form of punishment for delinquent male members of the military (Singapore Armed Forces—SAF) and this is administered in the SAF Detention Barracks. Caning is also an official punishment in reform schools and as a prison disciplinary measure.

In a milder form, caning is used to punish male youths in many Singaporean schools for serious misbehaviour.

A much smaller cane or other implement is also used by some parents as punishment for their children of either sex. This is allowed in Singapore.

giuseppe said...

From the Biddle article: "...we must also expand accountability, holding all the players in education accountable for doing right by our kids, no matter who they are or where they live." Geezus, teachers are being held to account and they have been held accountable for generations. Teachers are evaluated by principals and administrators, they don't evaluate themselves. Teachers don't hire themselves, unions don't hire the teachers and they don't evaluate the teachers during the 3 or 4 year trial period. Teachers are being evaluated NOW as we speak, they don't need anymore layers of evaluation and accountability crap. Enough already. This amounts to terrorism against teachers, especially the older more expensive teachers.