More than a Horse Race: A Guide to International Tests of Student Achievement

The Center for Public Education:

Few education stories get as much attention as the periodic ranking of U.S. students on international tests. The headlines are by now familiar: “U.S. Kids Mediocre in Math and Science”1; “4th and 8th Graders in U.S. Still Lag Many Peers”2. Surely, the media fascination with these stories is partly driven by our national desire to be number one. But according to many policymakers, business leaders, and analysts, more is at stake than American boasting rights. These individuals argue that the nation’s economic future depends directly on our ability to raise our present academic standing, particularly in math and science (Business Roundtable 2005; National Research Council 2005; White House 2006).
Others aren’t so sure. These observers assert that the reported failure of American students is exaggerated, claiming that the differences among countries aren’t so large. Besides, they say, our top students do just fine compared with their top-scoring peers in other countries (Bracey 1998).
Still others point to inherent difficulties in trying to make apples-to-apples comparisons across countries and argue that international rankings are not meaningful (Rotberg 1995).

Jay Matthews:

The report, “More Than a Horse Race,” was written by Jim Hull, policy analyst at the center, which is affiliated with the National School Boards Association. I sent a copy to a top U.S. expert on international educational comparisons, author and columnist Gerald W. Bracey. There were parts of the report Bracey did not like.
But I have found several points on which Hull and Bracey seem to agree. The Hull report at, released on Jan. 17, should be read in its entirety because it is the best summary yet of the four major studies that compare our achievement rates to those abroad. (You can also get Bracey’s response if you e-mail him at
5. Those who say our economy is doomed unless our schools get better appear to be ignoring recent history.
Hull introduced this topic in his report by noting that none of the international comparative studies include data from China or India. “Given the rapidly rising position these nations are taking in the global economy,” he said, he hoped they would be included in the future. Bracey interpreted this as a reflection of “the common, but perhaps erroneous assumption that how well 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets has something to do with the economic health of a nation.”