Amanda Ripley

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Are International Comparisons Unfair?

19th Sep 2013 posted in Education

As I travel around the country talking to people about The Smartest Kids, I keep running into the same objection:

"Other countries only test some of their kids; we test all of our kids."

This is not true. It may have been decades ago, but not now. From  Benchmarking for Success,  a 2008 report by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve:

"According to Jim Hull, who examined international assessments for the National School Boards Association, 'Since the 1990s, due to better sampling techniques and a move by more countries to universal education, the results represent the performance of the whole student population, including students who attend public, private, and vocational schools, students with special needs, and students who are not native speakers of their nation’s language.'


...U.S. enrollment rates in primary and secondary education are the same as or below those in other industrialized nations. For example, among OECD member nations, the U.S. ranks only 22nd in school enrollment of 5- to 14-year-olds and 23rd in enrollment of 15- to 19-year-olds.

Moreover, on the most recent PISA assessment, OECD member nations on average tested a higher proportion of 15-year-olds than did the U.S. (97 percent versus 96 per- cent of those enrolled in schools, and 89 percent versus 86 percent of the entire 15-year-old population), which refutes the idea that the U.S. was disadvantaged by testing a broader population.

While no assessment is perfect, PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS all have tight quality-control mechanisms, including very strict and transparent guidelines for sampling students and administering assessments. All exclusions must be thoroughly documented and justified, and total exclusions must fall below established thresholds."

I wonder what percentage of Americans excuse our kids' mediocre education results because they once heard this myth? If I had to guess, I'd say it's a big number (though not as big as the percentage that explains our results based (entirely) on our kids' poverty or skin color, which is also inaccurate).