Shanghai Surprise: Don't Sweat Global Test Data

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Nir Elias / Reuters / Corbis

Chinese immigrant workers' children study in a classroom in Shanghai

Concern about falling behind internationally is one of America's most popular education anxieties. This week's Washington visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao and all the chatter about Amy Chua's new book on why Chinese-style "tiger moms" raise more successful children than Americans do serve as uncomfortable reminders that the kids in Shanghai did astronomically well on a set of international tests released last month, whereas U.S. kids came in 17th.

That makes us sound pretty lame. But the extremists at both ends of the education spectrum — i.e., those telling us international tests are meaningless and those claiming the scores are a sure sign that the sky is falling — are wrong. Here are five reasons you should ignore the hysterical commentary, followed by a commonsense look at what you should care about instead).

1. Although the results of international tests are generally presented as an absolute ranking, often the differences between specific countries are not that substantial. For instance, when you look at the scores released last month by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. was in the middle of the pack in science and reading and lagged in math. No, we didn't do as well as we should, but we were ahead of countries like Germany, France and England.

2. It was Shanghai — not all of China — that received top honors on the PISA test. And Shanghai is where the smartest kids in the country go to school. So drawing the breathless conclusions as the media has about China and the PISA data is not unlike taking all the college kids in Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard and MIT, and declaring them to be a representative sample of higher education across the U.S. When we start testing rural China, we'll get a more accurate picture of what we're really up against.

3. There are differences between countries that international assessments fail to capture. The American educational system is remarkable for the second chances it offers students who struggle in school. If you have to repeat a grade, we don't tell you that you can never go to college. Likewise, if you fail a test, it doesn't automatically put you on a different life path. Even in some industrialized nations, high-stakes tests mean a lot of kids get kicked to the curb. That's not our way.

4. It's worth remembering that during the Cold War, we feared Soviet domination. When I was in school, we were told it was the Japanese who would be our undoing. Yet you don't hear much about Russia anymore, and American policymakers today are scrambling to avoid a "Japanese decade" like the economically anemic one that country had in the '90s. Much like the disclaimer on a mutual fund, past performance in addressing competitive challenges is not a guarantee of future success. So we can't afford to become complacent, but we should maintain some perspective.

5. The 20th century was clearly the American century, but that wasn't necessarily because of the superior quality of our schools. A variety of societal factors such as immigration, a stable government and legal system, respect for property rights and contracts, and openness to trade matter to competitiveness too. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek examined international test score data, and what he found should both hearten and worry us. When he crunched the numbers, he concluded that learning — and crucially, not just years in school but how much students actually learned — does matter to a country's economic growth. But the relationship, while quite significant, was not as pronounced when he accounted for some societal factors. In other words, we won't rise or fall on schools alone.

So what's the takeaway? It's clearly better to do well on these assessments than poorly. (Hanushek also found that improving performance on these tests would be reflected in our national economic performance.) And it is certainly troubling that we are not producing as many students who perform at the top of these assessments as some other countries are. But this is a long-term (and solvable) problem — even as we compete with countries like China that can swamp us in terms of population.

More immediately, rather than obsessing about international comparisons, we should focus on the data here at home, where there is a genuine educational crisis. Only about 6 in 10 African-American and Hispanic students are graduating from high school. Meanwhile, enormous gaps in achievement exist on state tests as well as our national assessments and other measures, like the SAT. Minority students are also more likely to be in special education and less likely to be in gifted education programs than other students. And remember: America will be a majority–minority country before 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

What this means is that if we want to become more competitive internationally, our future engineers and scientists will not come from the students who today are choosing other white-collar professions. Instead, they will have to come from the students who today do not even have that kind of career choice because of poor-quality education in their communities.

And that's our core education problem. Broken public-school systems constrain social mobility. Although college completion is the most effective social-mobility tool we have, only about 1 in 7 low-income students earn a degree. In other words, what we should really be concerned about is not being outcompeted by other countries but whether we'll start looking like too many of the ones that have static class structures and highly inequitable distributions of wealth. That prospect, much more than what kids in Shanghai or their moms are doing, should alarm us.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.