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Quick, Take This Test About the Significance of Those Bad U.S. Test Scores

What does this chart tell you about the linkage between math skills and national income?

Rich countries tend to have higher test scores. But does raising scores make a country richer?


A) Higher incomes raise math scores.

B) Higher math scores raise incomes.

C) Higher scores and higher incomes go together, but we can’t say why.

D) 739.8


The correct answer is D) 739.8. (Just kidding.)

The actual correct answer is C) Higher scores and higher incomes go together, but we can’t say why. Who really knows? It might be that countries with higher incomes can afford to lavish more spending on education in math and other subjects, so their kids do better on international assessments. Or it could be that countries with strong educational systems have more productive workforces that achieve higher incomes. Or a little of both. Or neither.

This chart comes from the report released today in Paris by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administered the 2012 PISA—Program for International Student Assessment—in 65 countries. As usual, the U.S. scores did not impress, which has generated the usual lamentations.

“The crucial question we face now is whether we have the political will to move away from the failed policies and embrace what works in high-performing countries so that we can reclaim the promise of public education,” United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement, according to Bloomberg.

The mediocre U.S. performance is embarrassing, especially because American children did the worst on what’s supposed to be an American strength: While the American students managed to follow simple instructions, they struggled with questions that required “higher cognitive demands,” such as taking a real-world situation and translating it into a formula, the OECD said.

This can’t be good. On the other hand, it’s not obvious how bad it is. Education blogger Jay P. Greene calls the PISA charts a “Rorschach test” in which each person finds what he or she is looking for. The dot way out at the right, below the regression line, is the U.S. result: rich but not too good at math. The dot way down at the bottom appears to be Qatar: almost as rich and really bad at math. The dot way at the top is Shanghai: poor but brilliant.

The best piece on PISA today is by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet. “For one thing,” she writes, “U.S. students have never scored at or even near the top of international assessments. Not ever.”

Strauss quotes Diane Ravitch—who, in turn, quotes Kevin Baker, a former U.S. Education Dept. analyst: “Baker argued that the purveyors of doom and gloom were committing the ‘ecological correlation fallacy.’ It is a fallacy to generalize that what is good for an individual (a higher test score, for example) must be right for the nation as a whole. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, he said, but evidence, not just an assumption, is needed to make the case.”

I wrote about a related issue—the tyranny of the SAT and ACT—in an Opening Remarks column in the magazine in October.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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