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Fairytales of data

3 min read


Our nation is deep in a conversation about the role of standardized testing in our education system. Where are we now?

It is more than a decade since NCLB reforms gave us annual testing and required schools to publicly report their data. In general, individual state scores increased during that time (though this conclusion is not without controversy).

So cause for cheers, yes? Hooray America! Marching band down Fifth Avenue!

Why no! — record scratch — the United States is far behind in international achievement and our domestic growth is stunted.

At least that’s what we’ve been told recently. ExxonMobil has been running this commercial. Media outlets report our international comparisons, the Common Core State Standards cite international testing as influential in their development, and Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein (of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) dramatically cited our failures to compete globally in their “U.S. Education Reform and National Security” report.

What story would you tell: Wide variations in data

The truth is, it’s not so clear that we have an achievement problem.

  • In one instance, U.S. 10th-graders scored comparably low internationally, and these PISA 2009 results were the major factor in our obsession with Finland.
  • Yet, on the PIRLS 2011, a text of fourth-graders, the U.S. made dramatic gains across years and is up in the top 5 countries in the world in reading and our math scores are “indistinguishable” from Finland.
  • A 2008 trend report on the U.S. NAEP test showed growth in reading for all tested groups: fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders.

Back to that PISA 2009 data that led to Finland being the answer (no offense Finland, you actually are doing most of what our education research says we should be doing, but policymakers ignore). A January 2013 analysis of that test’s data by Stanford University and the Economic Policy Institute — controlling for social class differences and a sampling error — found that the United States is not being outpaced by international students. In fact, in many factors, we appear to outpace others.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I — or any educator — believe we are done trying. The point here is that there is no clear story of U.S. education dramatically failing students. In most cases, the story is the exact opposite or at times at least too murky to know. My point: Don’t buy the story you are being handed. Sorry Exxon.

Further reading:

Christopher Lehman (@iChrisLehman) is an author, speaker and senior staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. He is author of several books for educators including “Energize Research Reading and Writing, and can be found at