International Test Scores, Irrelevant Policies

Misleading rhetoric overlooks poverty’s impact

By Iris C. Rotberg

Perhaps no research finding has influenced education policy more, or been subject to greater misinterpretation, than our ranking on international mathematics and science tests.

Previous critiques of international comparisons have focused largely on flaws in sampling and the limitations of test scores as a measure of the quality of a nation’s education system. These problems are still relevant. Equally important, however, are the conclusions drawn from the comparisons, even assuming their technical validity.

For decades, our rhetoric and education policies have been based on the premise that the ranking of U.S. students on international tests will lead to a decline in our nation’s economic competitiveness and a shortage of American scientists and engineers.

It is ironic, then, that given the rhetoric and policies surrounding international test-score comparisons—much of it unsupported by evidence—little attention is paid to two of the most powerful findings of these comparisons: the strong negative effects on student performance of both family poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools.

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