So, the U.S. Is Terrible at International Tests: Who Cares?

Americans have been botching assessments like the PISA for 50 years. It hasn't held back our economy yet. 


The results of yet another high-profile international exam have arrived, and U.S. students have once again turned in a decidedly ho hum performance. This time, it's the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA. Our 15-year-olds lagged in math, remained average in reading and science, and, on the whole, were thoroughly trounced by their peers in places like Shanghai, Japan, South Korea, and Finland.

Thus, an American tradition lives on. U.S. teens have tended to botch these sorts of tests ever since the 1960s, when they finished close to last in nearly every category on the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS). In the now-famous report "A Nation at Risk," a White House commission on education declared that our inability to outscore the likes of Japan had even become a threat to our economic well being and national security.

And that was in 1983. Which raises a question: If we've been so bad at these tests for so long, why worry now? In the last 30 years, our growth hasn't lagged other developed countries. Our allegedly underdeveloped American minds still managed to build the Internet. And hey, while we might trail the world in high school math, our quantitative geniuses on Wall Street still nearly managed to destroy the world with their elegant, but flawed, risk-management models.

One answer comes from Eric Hanushek, a well-known education economist and school reform advocate at Stanford's conservative Hoover Institution (you might have caught him in the documentary "Waiting for Superman"). He and his collaborators argue that test scores really do predict economic growth, since smarter countries are more innovative and productive countries, and can attract more international investment. If the United States were to raise our test scores to Canada's levels, they say, it could add $77 trillion to the economy over the next 80 years.

Those claims are based on a 2012 study (now a book) comparing test scores and growth across 50 countries from 1960 through 2009. During that time, Hanushek & Co. argue, America's economy over-performed its test results. But those days might be drawing to close:

The U.S. economy grew two-thirds of a percent faster per year for this period than would be predicted by its students' mediocre test scores. This performance reflects a number of historic advantages. The U.S. economy is built on open markets, secure property rights and generally favorable tax rates; a higher-education system at the top of the world; and favorable immigration policies that permitted highly skilled people to enter. But these relative advantages are declining as other countries emulate our institutions and practices. 

In other words, now that China's a market economy, we should expect all those brilliant kids in Shanghai to eat our lunch.

But will they really? As Rebecca Strauss of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote earlier this year, it's not entirely clear math and science tests capture the qualities that make for a strong work force:

In China, there is growing awareness of troubled “high-testing, low ability” adults, who could not thrive professionally as adults but did extraordinarily well on the grueling high school examination test known as the Gaokao that determines college entry and, many believe, a student’s life prospects. James Heckman of the University of Chicago has done ground-breaking research showing that some of the most valuable skills learned in high school are less academic and more akin to personality traits, such as “stick-to-it-iveness,” optimism, and grit in the face of setbacks. 

It's even less obvious that a math assessment can distill all the qualities that make for an innovative country. Forget Silicon Valley and the United States for a moment. Instead, consider Israel, another middling test-taker that's become a major startup and software hub that receives more venture capital investment as a percentage of its GDP than any other nation in the world.

Or think about smartphones. Apple, of course, triumphed by marrying technology with Steve Jobs' aesthetic sensibility. Nokia, which accounted for a quarter of Finnish growth from 1998 to 2007, sold fashionable phones designed by a Californian, Frank Nuovo (a guy who, by the way, spent his teens drumming in a Jazz Fusion band, not cramming for tests).

Some have gone so far as to suggest that an over-emphasis on test-taking could harm an economy. After finding that a country's success on the 1964 FIMS test was correlated with slower economic growth, former Department of Education researcher Keith Baker wrote:

Among high-scoring nations, a certain level of educational attainment, as reflected in test scores, provides a platform for launching national success, but once that platform is reached, other factors become more important than further gains in test scores. Indeed, once the platform is reached, it may be bad policy to pursue further gains in test scores because focusing on the scores diverts attention, effort, and resources away from other factors that are more important determinants of national success. 

Japan's recent history also casts a bit of doubt on the test-scores-as-destiny hypothesis. Once the Freddy Krueger of our 1980's economic nightmares, the country has spent the better part of two-decades stagnating, thanks to failed macro-economic policy decisions. Its vaunted education system has delivered consistently high exam results, sure. But combined with low growth, it's also left the country with a glut of overqualified workers slouching around the nation's cubicles.

None of this is to say we should entirely ignore assessments like PISA. The test points to serious issues, such as an unusually wide performance gap between our rich and poor students, as well as a national indifference towards mathematics. As Stanford professor, and frequent Hanushek critic, Martin Carnoy said to me, “Test scores obviously have something to do with human capital."

But, he added, they're also not the end all be all of economic growth. And that should give all us American dunces some comfort.