U.S. and international testing, Part 3: The cases of Finland and Singapore


by David Safier

This is the third in a series of posts about the latest international test scores for reading, math and science. Here are the first and second posts.

The U.S. is in the top 6 to 10 countries in the world in reading, math and science, based on the most recent international tests. That's a pretty impressive performance for a large, multicultural country like ours with large pockets of poverty. If you pulled out the scores from students in the Northeast, for instance, we would fare much better, while students in most southern states fare much worse.

Interestingly, the darling of the previous round of tests, Finland, slipped a bit this testing cycle. It was number one across the board last time, and everyone was rushing to study an education system that topped most Asian countries but is reasonably laid back and has virtually no standardized testing. This time, Finland ended up in 3rd place in reading and science and came in at a surprisingly low 8th in math, statistically equal to the U.S. which was just 2 notches below.

What went wrong? Probably nothing. The recent math test, the TIMSS, had a different emphasis than the earlier PISA, which played into Finland's strengths. And the previous scores may simply represent the kind of deviation that happens from test to test. But as usual, people overreacted to Finland's earlier test performance. Their students still did very well — though it's hard to separate schooling from other societal factors — but they no longer retain their best-in-the-world status.

That honor goes to Singapore this year, which has the world's highest overall scores. So should we flock to Singapore and try to duplicate their educational success? Probably not. Singapore has the third highest per capita income in the world, about 2% unemployment, the largest percentage of millionaire households in the world — a mind-blowing 1 in 6 — and very little acute poverty. Singapore reports only about 10% of its schools have a majority of disadvantaged students. The U.S. estimate is over 50%. If the U.S. only tested the portion of our population that matched Singapore's, our scores would look a whole lot better.

One high-placed Singapore resident says he's unimpressed with his country's scores: Singapore's minister of Education, Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He says Singapore has a testing meritocracy that doesn't create impressive real world results.

"[The U.S. has] a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well–like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America."

Many Asian educators agree. They come to the U.S. to see how our schools encourage creativity and entrepreneurship. So do many parents who move to the U.S. or Australia to improve their children's educations or who enroll their children in their own country's private, Western-style schools.

Test scores at best are an approximation of students' educational levels. The more you look at extraneous societal factors which have nothing to do with what teachers are doing in the classroom, the more approximate they look as a comparative measure of students, whether it's from student to student, school to school or country to county. It would be wonderful if we could measure learning with the certainty we measure height, weight and body temperature, but we can't, though conservative "education reform" people try to convince us test scores, which they manipulate to their own ends, are the gold standard.