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Misinterpreting PISA Scores

The results of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) generated their usual ration of hand-wringing.  They deserve a second look.

Differences in how the tests are given complicate interpretation of PISA scores, and some countries have in the past done things to give their scores an upward nudge.  This time, PISA decided to provide scores for China-Shanghai rather than for all of China.  This is like only using scores from high income suburbs in the US.

The US scored 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, but if we remove countries with small populations or extraneous slices like Shanghai, the US is better seen as ranking in the top five.  Of the tested countries with more than 100 million in population, the US ranks second, behind only Japan.  Of the countries that are likely to shape international relations in the future – Brazil, China, India, the U.S., only the US  and Brazil participated, and the US scored significantly higher than Brazil in every category.  The correlation between PISA and economic performance deserves a second look as well.  Japan, whose economy flatlined in 1990 and has been dormant ever since, scored higher than the US.

The most interesing comparison might be with Canada, given the similarities between the two countries.  Canada outscored the US in every category, even though they spend a bit less (per capita).  Might be worth asking why.

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