Alarm bells sound over latest international test scores

The latest (2011) results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which asses reading, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which tests mathematics and science, are in, and they aren’t pretty, particularly for the U.S., Canada and Australia.

In the 4th grade PIRLS reading tests, the United States ranked an unimpressive 7th, behind Singapore, the Russian Federation, Northern Ireland, Finland, England and Hong Kong. Canada ranked even lower (11th), and Australia ranked a dismal 17th, the lowest of English-speaking nations in the list (see PIRLS, pg. 68-69).

In the 4th grade TIMSS mathematics tests, the U.S. ranked 9th, behind Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan (Taipei), Japan, Northern Ireland, England and Russian Federation. Australia ranked 13th. Canada did not submit nationwide results, but the province of Ontario, if ranked in the list, would have ranked 19th (see TIMSS math, pg. 90-91). Among 8th grade students, the U.S. ranking dropped to 12th, while Australia rose to 8th, and Ontario, if ranked, would have been 17th (see TIMSS math, pg. 114-115).

In the 4th grade TIMSS science tests, the U.S. ranked 6th, behind Singapore, South Korea, Finland, Russian Federation and Taiwan (Taipei). Australia ranked a distant 19th, and Ontario, if ranked, would have ranked 14th (see TIMSS science, pg. 86-87). Among 8th grade students, the U.S. dropped to 11th, while Australia rose to 10th, and Ontario, if ranked, would have been 17th (see TIMSS science, pg. 114-115).

These reports have generated the predictable crowing and gnashing of teeth. Ontario officials, for instance, expressed pride at their good 4th grade reading performance, but were greatly distressed about the mathematics and science rankings.

Australian Council for Educational Research CEO Geoff Masters said he “could barely believe it.” School Education Minister Peter Garret termed the results a “wake-up call,” asserting that the results have disclosed serious problems in “in every state and every school sector.”

Jack Buckley, head of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, lamented that among older students, “we see less improvement over time,” a trend that is consistent across multiple exams. Similarly, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was encouraged with the 4th grade scores, but was concerned that “these signs of progress are not being sustained through eighth grade.”

In reading these reports, the present authors are struck with deja vu. We have heard these protestations so many times before.

In the U.S., nearly three decades have elapsed since Ronald Reagan’s National Committee on Excellence in Education released its famous report A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. It is 11 years since the institution of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. And yet progress has been minimal at best.

Similarly, in Australia, talk has greatly exceeded action, and progress has, if anything, been in reverse, as evidenced by the present test scores. In September 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised to inject $6.5 billion into the education program. But promises are yet to materialize into action.

In the meantime, many structural reforms are lacking. As we noted in an earlier Math Drudge blog, teacher preparation is certainly uneven, both in the U.S. and also in Australia. Some districts are significantly better funded than others. Some school facilities are in appalling condition.

All of this underscores an unpleasant fact: A strong education system requires concerted, long-term effort and sustained, long-term investment. There is no “royal road” to education.

[Added on 7 Jan 2013:] In an New Scientist article that appeared on their website 7 Jan 2013, MacGregor Campbell argues that the educational rankings of Western nations with Asia are “misleading.” However, upon careful reading Campbell’s article questions not the accuracy of the rankings, but the supposition that math-science educational achievement correlates with economic advancement. The article mentions Japan as the chief counter-example in this regard. But in our view, Japan is a poor example, because Japan’s economic failures of the past ¬†two decades are widely known to be the result of a number of factors (a real estate collapse, the government’s refusal to deal strongly with bad debt, relatively low investment in basic research, the failure to develop a robust domestic economy, etc.) that are not related to educational performance. In any event, other studies have found links between math/science performance and economic performance.

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