It’s a common complaint that American students do poorly on international tests. Many present this as evidence that our educational system is a failure. Or it may be that American students just don’t care about low-stakes international tests.
In a study out today, some researchers gave high-school students in the U.S. and Shanghai, China, a 25-question test based on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). The twist was that some were randomly selected to receive an incentive: an envelope containing $25 (or the equivalent in renminbi) and a promise that they could keep the money — minus a dollar for each question they got wrong. The money was introduced immediately before the test so it couldn’t affect preparation beforehand.
In the U.S., the incentives boosted scores across the spectrum — the high scores were higher and the low scores weren’t so low. Kids answered more questions and got more questions right. But in Shanghai, which dominates on international tests, the money made no measurable difference. The authors “estimate that increasing student effort on the test itself would improve U.S. mathematics performance by 22–24 points, equivalent to moving the U.S. from 36th to 19th in the 2012 international mathematics rankings.” (Though it’s possible that kids in some other countries would respond to incentives too, even if kids in Shanghai didn’t, which throws off this comparison a little.)
Our children is learning; they just have no motivation to prove that to anyone.