Making Sense of International Comparisons of Students

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We are regularly exposed to news reports about the results of international tests, in which children's scores in the United States lag behind those of their peers in many other nations in math, reading, and science. The results spur public debate as to why the nation's educational system is "mediocre" or why test results could be meaningless altogether--for instance, China, with very high rankings, reports scores only from the wealthy cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Is it even worth participating in these tests? What can they tell us, if anything, about America's educational system and how to make it better?

In the Future of Children, Daniel Koretz weighs in with some answers. He stresses that these tests do not provide unambiguous information about the effectiveness of American high schools compared to those of other nations. For example, participant countries vary by year, making it difficult to compare U.S. students with an international average, and the varying curriculums and complex sampling designs also pose problems.

Despite their many limitations, Koretz argues there is value in these tests. In using the results, we should consider multiple tests rather than a single source. We should ignore small differences between countries and consider comparing the U.S. to nations that are similar, such as Australia or Canada, or that are particularly high-achieving. Perhaps the most important benefit of testing is the numerous hypotheses that result about what impedes or improves student performance, which can then be tested and evaluated.

While there are certainly more important indicators of student success (e.g., graduation rates, college degrees), test scores offer useful information, which should be considered but not relied on solely. To learn more about how to make sense of test scores and how to improve the educational system, see the Future of Children issue on America's High Schools.

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