Keeping Perspective on the PISA Scores

by Jason Richwine

Yesterday morning, the OECD announced the results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the most widely known international comparison of student achievement. The PISA tests 15-year-olds in 65 different countries on math, reading, and science. As usual, U.S. students scored in the lower middle of the distribution: about average in reading and science, and below average in math.

What should we make of this? Richard Rothstein and Martin Cornoy wrote a good “pre-reaction” piece for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) over the weekend. I’ve had my share of dust-ups with the union-oriented EPI, but we have the same general perspective on international tests: While the U.S. gets mediocre scores, it also has demographic and socioeconomic challenges that the more homogeneous European and East Asian countries do not. To ascribe most score differences to school quality is to severely overestimate the power of education policy.

This isn’t to say that schools don’t matter, or that there is nothing to be learned from the PISA data. As Rothstein and Cornoy note, deriving valid insights from the PISA data will require careful, time-consuming analysis. By contrast, some of the conclusions drawn in the OECD report — e.g., “Some high-performing countries . . . show small variations in student scores, proving that high performance is possible for all students” — are superficial at best. And the media talking points emanating from the release will likely be even less helpful.

EPI is generally supportive of teachers unions and public schools. Must those who share EPI’s perspective on international tests also defend the public-school system? Not at all. Public schools are wasteful and inefficient. More fundamentally, students and their parents have needs that go beyond good test scores. They have a diverse set of preferences for the types of schools they attend, and only a robust system of school choice can hope to satisfy them.

Admittedly, school-choice advocates have sometimes slipped into the easy rhetoric of “failing public schools” and vouchers-as-panacea for low test scores. It’s a tempting set of talking points, but advocates end up backed into a corner if the expected gains don’t materialize. The best case for school choice starts with what parents want.

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