At my request, Pasi Sahlberg has written comments on the latest international test scores. Sahlberg is a prominent Finnish educator and author of the award-winning book “Finnish Lessons.”

Sahlberg writes:

International testing mania

This week educators around the world got a new opportunity to benchmark their students’ performance to their international competitors when The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the results of TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) mathematics and science of 63 countries and PIRLS (Progress in Reading Literacy Study) in 48 countries. The United States took part in both of these studies that tested how well 4th grade children can read and what 4th and 8th grade students know about mathematics and science in school.

The media gave rather blunt headlines of the U.S. performance in these international tests this week. “U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, reading, science” wrote the Washington Post and “Competitors Still Beat U.S. in Tests” reported the Wall Street Journal. Only to be Number One seems to be enough for America media. Similar headlines were published in Canada, New Zealand and Norway – all countries with lower than expected results.

But a glance at participating countries’ national averages reveals some interesting aspects of American students performance in the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS studies. 4th grade Americans scored high in science and reading and a bit lower in mathematics (7th, 6th and 11th respectively). Ahead were only East Asian countries (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan) and Finland. Americans 4th graders did better than most of their European peers in all tested areas.

Eighth grade American students also did well, hitting 9th in mathematics and 10th in science. Here again, before the U.S. came East Asians, Finns and, perhaps against the odds, Russians. This may seem to some in America as not good enough. But it is good to remember that according to historical data, American education has never been good if the criterion is performance in international studies. IEA has tested students in mathematics and science since the 1960s, the U.S. being one of the permanent participants. Over the half century, as Yong Zhao has concluded, American students performance in international mathematics and science tests has improved from the bottom to above international average.

Another interesting revelation in TIMSS 2011 is amazingly high performance of some U.S. states that took part in that study as ‘countries’. For example, 4th grade pupils in Florida performed above Canadian provinces of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec in reading, science and mathematics and were on par with Finland, except in science. Furthermore, 8th grade students in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado were better than high performing Hong Kong in science. If Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado were countries, they would all fit into top ten in 8th grade mathematics. Not bad at all.

Less than a month ago Pearson Corporation published another international study that compared 40 selected education systems, among them the U.S. and Finland. This study was based on an analysis of cognitive skills and educational attainment in these countries. In a way, “The Learning Curve” as Pearson has named its study, is a composite index that combines different sources of data and information. Finland was the winner in this new index, the U.S. being 17th. There has been some controversy concerning this study because it has been architectured and conducted by a commercial firm that has high interest in pushing forward certain education reforms around the world.

To make the scene of international comparisons even more complex, there is yet another international study, one that has gained more momentum and popularity than any other study. This is the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, administrated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). PISA was first run in 2000 and it tests 15-year-olds competences in math, literacy, and science in 34 OECD countries and similar number of non-member countries. It is conducted in three-year cycles – the results of PISA 2012 will be launched in December 2013.

In my book Finnish Lessons (2011) I highlighted early trends of American and Finnish students’ performance in reading, mathematics and science literacy. Findings were rather interesting. The U.S. students’ performance trend in PISA 2000 to 2006 was declining, similarly to all other countries that were infected by GERM (global educational reform movement of competition, choice, testing and privatization) in the 1990s. At the same time Finland’s scores in all areas were improving. Overall, as many people in the U.S. now know, American students have been left behind by most other OECD countries according to PISA test.

All that is said above invites two important questions. First, how is it possible that different international studies that compare education systems by having a particular look at students’ learning outcomes lead to such different results? Who is right? What do these studies really tell us? Second, are these studies in the end really able to inform policy-makers and guide education reforms in coherent ways so that teachers and students would have better opportunities to succeed? Do they help politicians to understand the nature of human learning?

Well, TIMSS and PISA are technically different studies, although they both build on similar measurement methodology. Simplified distinction of these two studies is that where TIMSS tests students’ mastery of what have been taught from the curricula, PISA assesses how students can use those knowledge and skills that they were taught in new situations. These both are student assessment studies. Pearson’s “The Learning Curve” index is different kind that consists of different indicators and is therefore a composite index. The problem with any study that relies on composite index is that it is open to designer manipulation. “Global Economic Competitiveness Index” and “The Best Country in the World” are good examples, just like “The Learning Curve.”

One may also conclude that these international standardized tests are becoming global curriculum standards. Indeed, OECD has observed that its PISA test is already playing an important role in national policy making and education reforms in many countries. Schools, teachers and students are now prepared in advance to take these tests. Learning materials are adjusted to fit to the style of these assessments. Life in many schools around the world is becoming split into important academic study that these tests measure, and other not-so-important study that these measurements don’t cover. Kind of a GERM in grand scale.

Pasi Sahlberg
Helsinki FINLAND