How Smart Are Americans

David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is an international consultant and fellow in the MIT Japan Program

If there was any doubt before, the apparently dismal academic performance of U.S. 12th-graders on the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) now guarantees that education will dominate the upcoming elections. But not only are the study's results suspect, Washington's 15-year quest to close America's "testing gap" is dangerously misguided.

The TIMSS survey of 21 countries is the latest offspring of a 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education, famous for declaring America a "nation at risk." Poor high school achievement, the commission contended, jeopardized America's economic and technological preeminence.

In 1990, the Bush administration set a goal for U.S. students to be "No. 1" in global math and science tests by 2000. A new industry flourished to measure America's progress using international surveys.

Last month, TIMSS reported that while fourth- and eighth-graders ranked near the middle of the global pack, U.S. 12th-grade math and science skills were close to the bottom. Public officials like National Academy of Science President Bruce M. Alberts lamented that, "[O]ur students will be ill-prepared for decision-making in a largely scientific and technological world."

Yet, if Americans are so woefully ill-prepared, why have they flourished since 1983? A big reason is that the survey results are critically flawed.

The study's 12th-grade survey of math and science literacy, for example, explains that selecting students for testing is "crucial to the quality and success" of international studies. Yet, 13 of the 21 participating countries, including the United States, the survey's principal organizer, flunked either the project's sampling or participation-rate standards. Four failed to achieve either standard.

U.S. students were among the youngest in the survey, averaging 18.1 years of age, compared with 21.2 for Iceland, 19.8 for Switzerland and 19.5 for Germany and Norway. Students in the top seven-performing nations were about 1.3 years older than their U.S. counterparts, a situation akin to pitting college sophomores against high school seniors.

National test scores also are so close to each other that precise rankings are misleading. U.S. science and math literacy scores were within 15% of all but three other countries. They were just 5% less than Germany's, a country renowned for engineering and technical skills, and 7% less than France's, which boasts a highly centralized, national education system like Japan's. If test scores accurately measure national performance, U.S. 12th-graders are bunched closely with their peers, not hopelessly behind.

Heavily averaged test results, however, distort what's going on in large, diverse countries like the United States. Smaller countries often do better in comparative surveys simply because more of their scores come from actual test results, not statistical inference.

TIMSS' top-10 math and science literacy performers--including tiny Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland--averaged just 125,000 12th-graders. The bottom 10 averaged nearly 1 million. Less than 1% of the 3.6 million U.S. 12th-graders were ever sampled by TIMSS versus more than 50% of Iceland's minute pool of 4,000 students.

Aggregate scores also hide the fact that large subgroups in bigger nations may be performing at stellar levels. A 1992 international achievement test similar to TIMSS showed that while the overall U.S. score was low, American Asians did better than any group in the world, wealthier U.S. urban residents placed fourth, and white U.S. students fifth. Poorer U.S. urban students, however, performed far worse, generating a low national result.

Since Asians and whites comprised 70% of the U.S. student body, arguing from test rankings that the United States lagged its competitors was especially misleading. The high-performing U.S. talent pool was larger than the combined total of several of its competitors. The real problem wasn't a lack of cutting-edge skills, but America's deeply disturbing, class-based division between high and low performers.

That's why other studies show that U.S. high school completion and college graduation rates have never been higher even as the TIMSS results seem so bleak. One-quarter of all Americans have at least a bachelor's degree, the highest percentage anywhere, and U.S. colleges produce a higher percentage of science and engineering graduates than any other industrial nation. The number of Americans passing college-level advanced-placement tests in high school has jumped 600% since 1978, now exceeding 550,000.

So why does the United States still pour millions of dollars into efforts like TIMSS?

A big factor is that politicians adore simple, dramatic symbols like the "missile gap" in the '60s or the Apollo moon project. Leading America to the top of the international-testing heap attracts conservatives and liberals alike.

Another is the power of the nation's education and testing bureaucracies. Testing critics long have charged that international survey results were overblown by educators, researchers and testing firms seeking grants. Some believe that's why the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, big TIMSS supporters, are working so hard to publicize the survey during the current budget cycle.

If beating Iceland by the year 2000 isn't the most enlightened goal, what should the focus of U.S. education policy be?

The most immediate challenge is resolving patently contradictory positions that paralyze any serious reform at the national level. As Congress' recent failure even to agree on basic principles for national testing and performance shows, many U.S. leaders passionately believe in tough, uniform education guidelines, devolving power to local authorities, school choice and protecting minority and school administrative interests--all at the same time. Do we want the disciplined, centralized coordination of a France or Japan, or should we expand America's already breathtaking diversity of public, parochial and private schools?

Equally important is taking seriously evidence that economic class strongly affects academic achievement. Although it's sometimes fashionable to think otherwise, one hidden lesson emerging from the testing data is that family income and stability counts big in school success.

In today's America, wealthy, socially advantaged children outperform just about everyone else in the world. Poorer rural and urban students from broken homes rank dead last. Class appears far more important than ethnicity. A 1992 study showed that while U.S. Asians score the highest of all groups on global math tests, wealthy black students outperform them, even though overall African American test scores are low.

If reliable, these results are far more troubling than America's TIMSS performance. One of the nation's most cherished beliefs is that the poor can educate themselves out of poverty. But if economic well-being and social stability are prerequisites for academic success, the chance of such self-generated upward mobility is remote.

Accordingly, in an antiwelfare era, should the poor sacrifice school for economic necessity--at the likely price of lifetime lower incomes? Should America subsidize education in the expectation that a degree is worth more to everyone in the long run? Amid growing class divisions, the United States must harmonize its interest in personal responsibility with the reality that education without economic wherewithal may be ineffective.

The United States also needs to reconcile immigration and social change with national education goals. Unlike the European nations TIMSS included, the United States historically has been an open society, willing to pay for immigrant education to reap the benefits of social freedom and dynamism.

Although nativists have long fought against educating immigrants, in a strikingly new development, they are being joined by a growing number of once socially liberal aging baby boomers who are enamored of the lifestyles of a Sweden or Norway. The explosion of private schools amid politically liberal urban communities, the growth of homogeneous white-flight cities in outlying areas and the anti-immigrant backlash now roiling the Sierra Club are all symptoms of this emerging reality.

As newly disaffected elites create privileged communities in America, their politics has become increasingly intolerant of change. Industrial development, for example, is already a target. To the extent public education attracts aspiring classes that impinge on elite lifestyles, it, too, will likely come under attack. This conflict will add a new, potentially explosive dimension to what is already a contentious debate about public schools.

It is far from certain that Americans will turn away from their heritage and seriously try to become a giant Norway or a France on steroids. But it is these kinds of issues, not hand-wringing over meaningless TIMSS scores, that should shape America's educational future.*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°