Test scores and magical thinking

The education reform movement has long painted a gloomy picture of how American kids perform on international tests and on our own “gold standard” of testing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The standard story is this: we once ruled the world in education, but we’ve been in decline and we’re falling further behind. At best, our test scores have been flat for decades while the rest of the world is catching up fast.

The degree to which these tests actually measure learning, or are at least based on a theory of learning, is very much open to debate.  But if we’re going to use these tests, let’s report what the data actually say. Kids are doing extraordinarily better on these tests, especially in math, than they did in decades past. I said so in this story for the Akron Beacon Journal.  The NAEP scores of all students have improved dramatically, but the scores for black and Hispanic students are still too low. Usually we hear about the low scores without hearing about the improvement. We need to hold both things in mind at the same time, especially when so-called reformers are eager to privatize education in order to save it.

Bob Somerby, author of The Daily Howler, blogs with mordant humor bordering on despair about the mainstream press corps’ failure to inform our national political discussion. I started reading Somerby, who once taught in the Baltimore schools,  a few years ago because I liked his analysis of education coverage. He’s been especially critical of how test scores get reported.

Bob’s post today at the Howler has the relevant data from international tests. You may be surprised to learn that on the 2009 PISA, U.S. kids on average scored higher in reading than the U.K., France and Germany (though yes, Korea, Finland and Canada scored higher). If you disaggregate those scores by race, American white students are third behind Korea and Finland, slightly better than Canada. However,  U.S. Hispanic students score a little higher than Turkey and U.S. black students are closer to Mexico at the bottom of the list.

Read the whole thing. Somerby paints a complicated picture that shows that we have an astonishing degree of variability in our schools, which appears to be driven by race and class.  That variability gets lost in an average score. He raises a good question about the Common Core, which imposes new, tougher uniform standards in 45 states that have signed on to get federal money through President Obama’s Race to the Top competition. If students can’t meet the standards we have now, will they meet the higher standards because we all will have higher expectations for them? Doesn’t that sound like magical thinking?