Each time international tests of student achievement are released, there is a parade of glib commentators explaining why we should not pay much attention to the generally poor performance of U.S. students. The arguments have become fairly standard. Don’t worry, these tests really do not indicate anything that is very important. Moreover, if one reads the results carefully, it is possible to find areas where the U.S. looks pretty good. And if we just look at our best students, they are competitive with students from other countries. The recent article by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post actually collects each of these arguments into one concise statement. Not surprisingly, many people are willing to don the blinders offered by such discussions, because they offer a much easier path for public policy.
Unfortunately, each of these common arguments is either terribly misleading or wrong. Simply looking for blue sky in the test results ignores a substantial body of scientific research. While many people want to be reassured that things are going just fine, ignoring the real message of these tests actually imperils our economic future.