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The Results Are In: National Test Scores Don't Tell Us Very Much

Neal McCluskey

I dread the release of national standardized test scores because there is always big pressure to pull something out of them and declare, as quickly as possible, that they show your favorite reform works. In my younger days I’m sure I succumbed. But as time has gone on, I’ve concluded that any given year’s big release is just one year of new data from which nothing can be definitively determined about why scores have moved as they have. There are simply too many variables at play, from family wealth, to spending, to school choice, to what any given test asks, to conclude very much. So I hope you’ll bear with me while I throw all that out the window. The latest scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) do reveal something conclusive: It’s dangerous to look at one country and declare “We all must do what they do!”

Finland, I’m looking—or no longer looking—at you.

After the Finns ranked among traditionally top, typically East Asian, countries in the 2001 PISA—a test of 15-year-olds containing reading, mathematics, and science portions—and replicated that a few more times, a veritable cottage industry arose declaring that the United States, and everyone else, should copy Finland. Google “Finnish miracle education” and your search results will overflow. Because Finland did so well, education analysts confidently proclaimed the need for fewer standardized tests, light-touch national standards, more teacher autonomy, and small classes, just like the Finns had.

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