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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

International Test Scores and the Illusion of Achievement

There is an ongoing narrative concerning public education in this country. Our students are failing and falling further and further behind the rest of the world despite years of educational initiatives and reforms that have pumped billions of dollars into our public schools. Programs such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act were implemented to increase student achievement so that we can maintain economic and military hegemony across the globe. Conventional wisdom in education circles dictates that if the nation doesn't turn around its substandard educational system, those with more robust test scores like China, Singapore, and Japan will eventually supplant us. But is this characterization of our school system accurate? Do international test scores predict a nation's economic competitiveness? Upon closer examination, one finds that American schools are not failing; they are doing moderately well compared to the rest world (Highlights of U.S. PISA 2018 Results Web Report). Further, unlike many nations, America's schools educate everyone. Dedicated to the belief that all children are entitled to free public education, our schools educate the very poor, children with special needs, urban and rural children. No other school system in the world of comparable size and heterogeneity can make that claim. To be sure, there are significant problems in American education, such as the persistent achievement gap between ethnically and linguistically diverse students and European and Asian Americans. But international test scores create an illusion of progress when taken out of context and overlook the detrimental impacts of an educational system fixated on standardized test scores.

American students' academic achievement is measured and compared to students worldwide through the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA. PISA is an exam given once every three years to fifteen-year-olds worldwide in math, readings, and science. Created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and first given in 2000, PISA is administered to students in 65 countries and several autonomous regions that make up ninety percent of the world's economy. The exam does not test students' rote memorization of facts. Instead, it assesses how well students can apply concepts to problems, enabling the OECD to make sound comparisons between tested students. It should be noted that the OECD permits partial participation for China, meaning that it allows four provinces Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, to stand in for the performance of the entire nation. Further, autonomous regions such as Macao and Hong Kong are allowed to participate as separate entities. If high performing U.S. states were allowed to do the same thing, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut would be among the world's highest-performing school systems (Crotty, 2014).

Compared to students in other countries, the results of the 2018 PISA exam indicate that American students do moderately well and are similar to those in Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The reading portion of the PISA exam assesses how well students understand, use, and reflect on written texts to achieve goals, develop knowledge and potential, and participate in society. American students ranked ninth in the world in reading with a score of 505. The PISA average was 487. American students reading scores have not fluctuated much over time, scoring 504 in 2000 (OECD, 2020a). The highest-scoring country was Estonia, with a mean score of 523. PISA's science section measures how well students use scientific knowledge to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena, and draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues. American students ranked ninth in the world with an average score of 502. The OECD average for all participating counties was 489. Data available for science scores only goes back to 2006, in which American students scored 489. The highest performing nation was Estonia, with an average score of 530.

American students had a little more difficulty with mathematics. According to the OECD, the math section of the test measures a student's ability to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in various contexts to describe, predict and explain phenomena, recognizing the role that mathematics plays in the world. PISA scores indicated that American students ranked thirty-first overall globally, scoring 482 points, just shy of the world average of 492. In 2003, the furthest date which data is available, American students scored 486. The highest-ranking nation in 2018 was Japan, with a score of 527 (OECD, 2020). While undoubtedly Americans would like to see more competitive scores across the board, especially in mathematics, it is apparent from the PISA data that American students are not failing. Our students have remained relatively consistent over time.

With so much attention given to PISA scores and American students' performance on the test, it begs the question, what do the scores mean, and why do we obsess about them? Arne Duncan, President Barrack Obama's Secretary of Education, captured the educational zeitgeist in a speech delivered after releasing the 2012 PISA scores. In his remarks, Duncan addressed the mediocre results. He warned the nation that "In a knowledge-based, global economy, where education is more important than ever before, both to individual success and collective prosperity, our students are losing ground. We're running in place, as other high-performing countries start to lap us… What those skeptics fail to recognize is that education plays a much bigger role today in propelling economic growth than in the 1960s or the 1980s. In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, the importance of education has increased enormously. Education is the new currency, and this currency is recognized internationally" (Duncan, 2013). Duncan's doom and gloom assessment of America's failure to educate its citizens properly will result, he warned, in economic peril and pecuniary domination from our global rivals. However, a recent study has demonstrated that between the years 2000-2015, PISA scores had no causal relationship with economic growth.

Much of the handwringing over international test scores and economic productivity stem from Human Capital Theory. First developed after World War Two, the theory states that an individual's level of educational achievement determines their workforce productivity. In other words, there exists a positive correlation between education and work. As a result, education has become a form of economic capital, that formal education and not social background determines economic outcomes (Marginson, 2017). Therefore, higher national test scores on international assessments such as PISA should result in greater national economic productivity, except that the data does not support this conclusion. Feniger and Atia (2019) performed a simple statistical exercise. They examined the correlation between a country's average score on the 2000 PISA test and subsequent economic growth measured by per capita GDP in U.S. dollars. All correlations of the data indicated negative associations. In other words, countries with lower PISA scores showed more significant economic growth than did countries with higher PISA scores. Further, changes in reading scores were the only statistically significant predictor of economic growth. In all cases, economic growth preceded rises in PISA scores, and conversely, when a nation suffered from economic downturns, there was a drop in PISA scores. Finland may be one of the best examples of the effects of an economic recession on PISA performance. For many years Finland has been the darling of the education reform movement. Considered to be one of the best education systems globally, Finland's PISA scores in all three areas have dropped between 2000 and 2015. Finland continues to have a world-class education system, and its scores are still among the highest in the world. Still, a nation's economy may play a far more prominent role in educational outcomes than once thought.

Despite PISA scores' inability to predict economic vitality, one of the significant lessons from the PISA exam is the degree to which American schools experience an achievement gap between wealthy and disadvantaged schools. Ninety-three points, or three years of schooling, separate the highest from the lowest-performing American schools. But what is even more significant is that the analysis of PISA data suggests a gap in achievement within the same school between high and low achievers. Meaning that the difference in performance between a school's top-performing students, and its lowest is more significant in the United States than just about every other OECD nation (Barshay, 2020). This conclusion speaks to the degree to which American schools are becoming alarmingly unequal even in the same building. There are many theories as to why this occurs in the United States, including growing cultural diversity, a wide range of income levels, especially in larger high schools, and "tracking" high performing students into advanced classes. Rather than fixate on scores alone, education policymakers should make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive the support they need to keep pace with their more affluent peers.

Interestingly, the education systems with the highest PISA scores in the world are desperately trying to reform the way they educate their youth. The Chinese government has realized that high scores on standardized tests have come at a detrimental price. Throughout its long history, the Chinese have used tests as a vehicle for social mobility. The keju or Imperial Exam dates back to AD 605 and was used to select government officials to serve the ruling class. The Chinese stopped the practice in 1905, but high stakes tests have remained barriers to entry in many areas of life, including education. For example, a Chinese student must pass a public exam called Zhongkao to move from junior primary school (grades 7-9) to senior secondary school (grades 10-12) and must pass the gaokao or National College Entrance Exam to attend most universities. And since admittance to a prestigious university is the key to social mobility and high social status in China, the education system is built around maximizing test scores above all else. The constant societal and parental pressure, extended school days, summer tutoring classes, endless memorization, and test-taking have taken their toll on Chinese students. According to the state-run Chinese news agency Zinhua "Under the current exam-oriented education system, Chinese students are overloaded with schoolwork and lack sufficient physical exercise, which has given rise to health problems such as obesity and myopia." Further, Chinese students experience severe emotional stress in their quest for high test scores resulting in self-harm. According to the Annual Report on China's Education, most teens who took their lives did so because they could not take the pressure of the test-focused education system (Xinying, 2014).

One of the ironies of Chinese academic success is best expressed by the phrase gaofen dineng, which means high scores but low ability. There is a persistent problem in China that high test scores have not translated into useable skills or innovative thinking necessary to compete in a 21st-century knowledge economy (Zhao, 2009). In other words, the very system that has created the world's best test-takers has also stifled creativity. A highly standardized and centralized curriculum, extended school days, mountains of homework, and teaching to the test in schools that demand conformity and obedience has put the Chinese at a decisive disadvantage when it comes to creativity and innovation. Writing is 1997, the Chinese Ministry of Education pointed out:

"Test-oriented education" refers to the factual existence in our nation's education of the tendency to simply prepare for tests, aim for high test scores, and blindly pursue admission rates [to colleges or higher-level schools] while ignoring the real needs of the student and societal development. It pays attention to only a minority of the student population and neglects the majority; it emphasizes knowledge transmission but neglects moral, physical, aesthetic, and labor education, as well as the cultivation of applied abilities and psychological and emotional development; it relies on rote memorization and mechanical drills as the primary approach, which makes learning uninteresting, hinders students from learning actively, prevents them from taking initiatives, and heavily burdens them with [an] excessive amount of course work; it uses test scores as the primary or only criterion to evaluate students, hurting their motivation and enthusiasm, squelching their creativity, and impedes their overall development. "Test-oriented education" violates the Education Law and Compulsory Education Law and deviates from our education policy. Henceforth, we must take all effective measures to promote "quality education" and free elementary and secondary schools from "test-oriented education." (Guojia Jiaowei [National Education Commission], 1997)

The Chinese government is aware of the importance of innovation, creativity, and other 21st century skills to its economic vitality and is actively working to improve those outcomes. Recently, China has taken several bold initiatives to modernize and update its approach to education through reforms in curriculum, stressing creativity, reducing the role of standardized tests and the gaokao, reducing the amount of time spent on homework, and providing resources to rural and migrant students (Education in China: A Snapshot, 2016). As Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing points out “It is misleading to take the Pisa test result as a vote of confidence in our education system,” he went on to say “Chinese schools are very behind in sparking students’ interest in learning or nurturing a creative and curious mindset,” (Chen, 2019).

America's golden age of k-12 education in which she led the world in academic achievement is a myth. Yet, many still cling to this fable to argue for increased resources to improve standardized test scores so that we can return to the greatness that never was. Instead of focusing on the educational attributes necessary for technological and economic innovation, such as creativity and critical thinking, we are doubling down on an old model, standardized test scores. Meanwhile, China is making great strides to move beyond its tradition of standardized tests and rote learning to become more creative and innovative. An example the United States would do well to follow.

In the next installment, I will examine the history of American high stakes testing and why we need to reform our nation’s approach to teaching and learning.

References and Further Reading

Alexander, R.J. (2012). Moral panic, miracle cures and educational policy: What can we really

learn from international comparisons? Scottish Educational Review, 4-21

Araujo, L., Saltelli, A., & Schnepf, S. V. (2017). Do PISA data justify PISA-based education

policy? International Journal of Comparative Education and Development, 19(1), 20-34.


Barshay, J. (2020). What 2018 PISA international rankings tell us about U.S. schools. Retrieved

November 23, 2020, from


Chen, Q. (2019, December 04). Nope, China isn't celebrating its big win in test scores. Here's

why. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from


Crotty, J. (2014). If Massachusetts Were A Country, Its Students Would Rank 9th In The World.

Retrieved November 24, 2020, from


Duncan, A. (2013). The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency. Retrieved

November 24, 2020, from


Dynarski, M. (2018). Is The High School Graduation Rate Really Going Up?. [online]

Brookings. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 November 2020].

Education in China: A Snapshot (2016). OECD.


Executive Summary of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. (2007). Retrieved November 23,

2020, from

Feniger, Yariv & Atia, Michael. (2019). Rethinking cause and effect: Analyzing economic

growth and PISA scores over a period of fifteen years.

Hansen, M., Levesque, E., Valant, J., & Quintero, D. (2018). 2018 Brown Center Report on

American Education: Trends in NAEP math, reading, and civics scores (Rep.). Retrieved

November, 2020, from Brown Center on Education Policy at Brooking website: 2018

Brown Center Report on American Education: Trends in NAEP math, reading, and civics


Harris, D. N., Liu, L., & Li, R. (2020). Is the Rise in High School Graduation Rates Real? High

Stakes School Accountability and Strategic Behavior (Rep.). Washington D.C. Streep, M.,

Highlights of U.S. PISA 2018 Results Web Report (NCES 2020-166). U.S. Department of

Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

Available at pisa2018/index.asp

Klein, A. (2020). No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements,

Criticisms, and More. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School

Officers (2010) Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center

for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C. Copyright

Date: 2010.

OECD (2020), Reading performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/79913c69-en (Accessed

on November 23 2020)

OECD (2020), Science performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/91952204-en (Accessed on November 24 2020)

OECD (2020), Mathematics performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/04711c74-en

(Accessed on November 24 2020)

Simon Marginson (2019) Limitations of human capital theory, Studies in Higher

Education, 44:2, 287-301, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2017.1359823

Tyack, D. B., Bernard, S. C., Mondale, S., & Patton, S. B. (2001). School: The story of American public education. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

U.S. Department of Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational

Reform. Washington D.C.: The National Commission on Excellence in Education

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). The Federal Role in Education. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education-- Pg 1.

U.S. Department of Education.

Xinying, Z. (2014, May 14). School tests blamed for suicides. Retrieved November 26, 2020,


Zhao, Y. (2009). Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalism. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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