World Rankings of Smarts

It’s that time of year (again)! New international test data came out yesterday. Australian media swiftly pronounced the results a “disaster.” Massachusetts declared victory. The New York Times was glum.

What does it all mean?

Well, for the country as a whole, the news is not earth shattering: U.S. 4th graders improved a bit in reading and math—while 8th graders stayed the same in math and science. But the results held a few useful reminders nevertheless.

1. U.S. students hold their own—especially in reading—in the younger years. Florida 4th graders rocked the reading test. (I mean seriously rocked it, Finland style.) It’s not until middle school and high school that things begin to come undone. Something happens (especially in mathematics) as kids get older, and the big question is, What?

2. Different tests measure different things. Sounds obvious, but it’s not—at least not in most of the media coverage. These particular tests measure knowledge—whether kids have absorbed the info that their teachers have been teaching. They do not measure thinking—whether kids can take that knowledge and use it to solve problems they have never seen before. Personally, I am more interested in whether our kids are learning to think. But that doesn’t mean these results are not useful, too.

Yesterday’s release was from something called TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). Those tests were designed to measure how much kids have learned in school. The questions are roughly aligned with curricula in the participating countries.

The PISA test (yet another mind-numbing acronym, of which there seems to be a limitless supply…), the Program for International Student Assessment, measures whether older students (age 15) are able to think, reason, analyze and communicate in reading, math and science. In my view, it is much more relevant to the 21st century economy. As jobs continue to be outsourced or automated, those higher-order thinking skills are becoming more valuable every year.

On that test, the U.S. usually does considerably worse than yesterday’s results would suggest. Especially in math—at all socio-economic levels. And if you look at our scores per dollar spent (which hardly anyone ever does for some reason), the results are truly mystifying.

But who knows? That could all change. Half a million teenagers worldwide took the latest PISA test this year. New rankings are due out in, oh, almost exactly 1 year.

EducationAmanda Ripley