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Apples to Oranges: Comparing Student Performance Across Countries With Varied Socioeconomic Conditions

In the three decades since A Nation at Risk was released, the state of America’s education system relative to other countries’ has been a matter of heated debate. Along the way, public opinion has placed the onus for our schools’ perceived failure on teachers and their preparation, and education policy has echoed this assumption through an array of accountability measures for teachers and preparation programs.

One driver of the continued misconception about U.S. teacher quality is the highly publicized results of international large-scale education assessments (ILSAs) that suggest America’s students are performing far below other nations. At January’s press briefing for the report The Iceberg Effect, lead researcher and report author James Harvey explained that ILSAs have been misused and that the science behind them is highly questionable, akin to comparing apples to oranges.

Specifically, our obsession with the question “Are students in Country X better educated than those in Country Y?” has kept us in a losing horse race, Harvey said. He explained that the United States measures all students—poor students, students with disabilities, and immigrants both documented and undocumented—unlike many comparison countries that test only high achievers. He noted that ILSAs compare students from democracies, autocracies, dictatorships, and theocracies and lump together countries of varying sizes and economic standings.

No one metric can tell the full story. The Iceberg Effect’s authors, however, pay attention to these contexts and opt to compare the United States with more similar countries, including the G-7 nations plus Finland and China (due to consistent global interest in the education in these two countries). Interestingly, their findings suggest that when we consider school system-wide achievement, the United States outperforms the other G-7 nations in years of education completed, adults with high school diplomas, and adults with bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, the data indicate that American students represent one quarter of the global high achievers in science. The implication here is that America’s students are outperforming the students from comparable nations.

What begs attention is that approximately a quarter of our country’s children under 18 live in relative poverty. According to this report, the United States ranks lowest among comparable nations in providing social supports to families to offset the ill effects of poverty. The United States also ranks lowest in economic equity, with a Gini Index of Income Inequality score of 45 (a sad commentary when the United States’ gross national product dwarfs that of our international competitors).

In his keynote address last month at the AACTE Annual Meeting’s Welcoming Session, Marc S. Tucker presented data showing that most other countries surpass the United States in providing support for children and families as well as in providing resources for the disadvantaged. In our country, he said, socioeconomic status is a better predictor of student performance than in all but three other countries used in ILSA comparisons. U.S. schools no longer provide the route out of poverty as was once the case, which should be of concern to us all.

Our next essential question is one that joins AACTE’s commitment to serving all learners equitably with the findings prompted by these reports: How do we lead the conversation about what teachers have long known—that so much of student achievement is affected by factors outside of school?


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Amanda Bush

George Mason University - AACTE intern

Christine DeGregory

George Mason University - AACTE intern

Donna Sacco

George Mason University - AACTE intern

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