Second Opinion: Power of PISA

Lauren Williams's picture
Thursday, December 12, 2013

THE standardized tests known as the Program for International Student Assessment are considered so important that, when the latest results were released last week, the U.S. Department of Education participated in a so-called PISA Day.

The leaders of the nation's teachers unions immediately fired off news releases asserting that the mediocre PISA scores of American students showed that more than a decade of testing-based reform had failed our schools. Prominent reform leaders, by contrast, concluded from the test results that the U.S. was failing to change schools radically enough to aid its most disadvantaged students. Still others predicted that the U.S. economy would crash and burn because of our students' unimpressive math scores.

A saner interpretation of the PISA results came from researchers who have studied international rankings in great detail, and their message goes something like this: Calm down, everyone. The results on this and other international tests are more complicated than they look, and in this case, nuance makes a difference.

Despite the doomsday talk, the scores that a country receives on the PISA don't necessarily predict the strength - or weakness - of its future labor force or the trajectory of its economy, said Martin Carnoy, a professor of education at Stanford University.

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