Kazakhstan Beats Alabama On Science Tests. Massachusetts Bests Japan. Global Comparisons Are Silly

One of America’s worst performing education systems, Alabama schools, got beat on International science tests by the humble central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, and only narrowly outperformed Iran and Turkey. International math and science test results were thrust upon the news cycle today and opportunistic policymakers are decrying the inevitable doom America will face without a superior education system. Yet, levelheaded statisticians have attempted to argue why it’s silly to compare the U.S. to the rest of the world. America is 300 million people strong; there’s more variation between states than between competitor countries. For instance, in Massachusetts, home of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the average 8th Grader scores higher in science than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts.

First, some background.

The Olympics of education, the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study TIMSS, ranks the world’s education systems by the analytical prowess of their nation’s adorable 4th and 8th Grade minds. The most notable findings

  • Asia dominated the world, with Singapore, Korea, China and Japan vastly outscoring everyone else on most measures
  • The U.S. is better than average (hooray!). Most of the Asian nations and Slovenia, Finland, and Russia all bested America’s 8th grade scientists.
  • As for America’s unfortunate race disparity, blacks and Hispanics continue to lag behind whites and Asians (specifically Asians > whites > Hispanic > black).
  • Poverty is a powerful predictor of performance. In Alabama schools where 75% or more students received discounted lunch, 8th Grade math scores were below the averages of Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

All of this might justify some nervous hand wringing, if it weren’t for the fact that the United States has never ranked at the top of International test scores, despite being the preeminent innovative force for nearly a century. International comparisons are statistically silly for two very important reasons.

First, as I and others have argued before, the top slice of students, those who build companies and earn advanced degrees, are responsible for most of the influential innovations. The United States has, in terms of absolute numbers, twice as many top performing students than Japan and attracts 17% of the worlds international students (far more than 2nd-place Britain, at 5%).

Second, the United States is enormous. Most major countries, from Iran to Germany, either outperform and underperform depending on which US state they’re being compared to.

Indeed, the TIMSS report went out of its way to separate education “systems” from “countries,” precisely because our national obsession with comparing countries is statistically bogus (for a more thorough take on this view, read here).

Poverty, race, and opportunity are every bit as important to the educational success of students as what they do while sitting in class. If we want to improve a nation’s intellectual and entrepreneurial spirit, it will take much more than memorizing facts.