Leland Teschler, Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW—LeeTeschler
Here are a couple of physics questions. How well do you suppose an average eighth grader would do at answering them?
There are two identical blocks of ice, one wrapped in newspaper. Which ice block will melt first and why?
An object has a density of 1.1 gm/cm3. Would the object float in liquid X having a density of 1.3 gm/cm3, or liquid Y with 0.9 gm/cm3?
Actually, you don’t have to guess about eighth graders and their answers. These questions come from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study for eighth graders. The TIMSS is one of the international assessments of STEM skills that evokes a lot of hand wringing about U.S. education. Every year, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement releases a few of the questions and statistics about who got them correct.
It turns out that 62% of South Korean eighth graders knew that the object would float in liquid X, the top score among countries. Only 43% of U.S. eighth graders knew the answer, but that was above the international average of 31%. Interestingly, individual states can choose to have their scores computed separately. Kids in Massachusetts did slightly better than the Koreans while six other states did better than the U.S. average.
When it came to wrapping ice cubes in newspaper, 60% of Chinese eighth graders knew that newspaper would help prevent heat from reaching the ice. The international average was 35%, 31% for the U.S. The top scoring state was snowy Minnesota with 36%.
Before you panic about low U.S. test scores, consider the findings of researchers from Harvard and Boston College writing in a recent issue of Science Magazine. They say the rankings that come out of such international assessments as TIMSS or the Programme for International Student Assessment test (PISA) can be quite misleading.
One big problem is that those taking the tests probably don’t represent the average kid, particularly outside the U.S. For example, in less developed countries such as Turkey and Mexico, as many as 40% of kids have already dropped out of school by age 15. In East Asia, a lot of students get private tutoring. South Korea is good example; About half the Korean kids taking the PISA test in 2012 had tutoring that often focused on test preparation. So high scores by Korean kids may be an indicator that private tutoring works, rather than saying anything about the Korean educational system.
An even bigger variable is whether kids apply themselves when answering test questions. At least in the U.S., assessments like PISA or TIMSS don’t go on a kid’s academic record. Thus, they aren’t a factor in college admissions or in anything else that matters to the students taking the test. Time spent taking the PISA is little more than an excuse to avoid what otherwise might be time spent listening to a boring classroom lecture. In this scenario, U.S. kids probably can’t be faulted for not putting a lot of thought into their answers.
But the situation is different in East Asian cultures, the researchers note. It’s plausible, they say, that East Asian kids score higher partly because they’re conditioned to take any test seriously, even one that’s unimportant.
All these imponderables are good reasons to be skeptical of educational rankings based on test results. They are also good to keep in mind the next time you hear politicians advocate expensive remedies for low U.S. test scores.