China's Test Scores Send U.S. Education Anxiety into Orbit

Susan Hall

References to Sputnik keep cropping up. In calling for more investment in science and technology, President Obama has said the "Sputnik moment is back" for the United States, according to Network World. He was referring to the 1957 orbiting Soviet satellite now synonymous with any foreign challenge to America's technical dominance.


U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu also recently referred to the Soviet satellite and it was mentioned Tuesday in a New York Times story on U.S. students' mediocre performance on an international test. The Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, is given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


This year, students from Shanghai, China, took the test for the first time and basically cleaned up, placing first in reading, math and science. Of the 56 countries represented, U.S. students placed 23rd in science, 17th in reading and 31st in math, in line with where they usually place on this test. Those kinds of results barely make news anymore.


Yet the Times quotes Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Reagan's Department of Education, saying:

Wow, I'm kind of stunned, I'm thinking Sputnik. I've seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.

And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said:

We have to see this as a wake-up call. I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better.... We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated.

Much of the reporting on the scores notes that the Chinese students from the modern city of Shanghai are not representative of the country as a whole, which does not try to educate all children equally. It's easy to find articles on why comparisons on these international tests are not valid, including one in The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and one at The Atlantic.


Yet, Reuters quotes Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD, saying:

It is a warning to advanced economies that they cannot take for granted that they will forever have "human capital" superior to that in other parts of the world. At a time of intensified global competition, they will need to work hard to maintain a knowledge and skill base that keeps up with changing demands.

We've been trying to "reform" education in this country for at least 30 years, and my colleague Ann All has written repeatedly about the continuing calls for improvement in science and technology education.


At The Washington Post, though, writer Valerie Strauss argues that the hysteria over the PISA results misses the point. She says:

... our high-stakes standardized test obsession, the ones mandated by No Child Left Behind, have, apparently, done nothing to improve the reading, science and math literacy of American 15-year-olds if, that is, you put a lot of stock in the results of one international testing system. And even if you don't.
For nearly a decade, public schools have been test-obsessed, and charter schools have abounded. Those who hold test scores as important measures of progress should face the obvious: NCLB didn't work.
And that is something Congress should seriously consider when it decides whether, and how, to change No Child Left Behind.

I would add that if it takes a little hysteria and a few references to Sputnik to finally see better results, so be it.

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