By John Sener
I’ve already written about comparative achievement tests.1 Now that “PISA Days” are here again, thus begins another round of national self-flagellation about the supposedly sorry state of American education based on dubious interpretations of international test scores of questionable credibility and limited value.2 I’m in the midst of a lot of work-related catching up, but I suspect I’ll be pulling together my thoughts about this latest round of PISA-induced moaning and gnashing of teeth over the next week or so.
I don’t think that the NBCNEWS article3 is strong at all — it’s as formulaic as all the others that are sprouting up as predictably as flowers after a desert rain. It quotes sources (e.g., Eric Hanushek) with well-known biases on which they base their living and professional careers. It has the predictable counterargument buried in the middle and ultimately dismissed without much substance, and it concludes that Things Are Bad and Slowly Getting Worse. I’ve already read several of these articles, and I will be surprised to find one for which I don’t already know how the plot ends.
BTW, here’s an angle on such articles that just popped up for me: last night, for unrelated reasons I was re-reading parts of Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence (1995), in particular the chapter about “The Hallmark of the Emotional Mind.” Goleman apparently posits that we have an emotional mind as distinct from our analytical one. I haven’t done the mapping yet, but I have a strong suspicion that the current spate of PISA doom articles are based almost entirely on emotional arguments. No one writing these articles is doing any actual analysis of the facts, and if they did, the arguments would fall apart like a house of cards.
Part of me wants to bemoan the fact that so many professionals, including some educators, want to embrace the PISA results so uncritically. But I think the more interesting angle is the fact that we seem to respond, collectively and individually, to emotional arguments. Winning the analytical argument is not enough; one has to win the emotional argument somehow. I’m still figuring out how that happens…
Or, here is one antidote to this madness: Diane Ravitch’s article, which includes an analysis of Keith Baker’s work (which unfortunately costs $$ to access) through which he concludes that “standings in the league tables of international tests are worthless.” I’m in the process of collecting other more rational responses to this latest release of PISA results, from which I hope will emerge a reasoned, analytical summary of what the PISA results mean (or don’t mean). But I remain more intrigued by the question lurking in the background: why do people respond so emotionally and not rationally when it comes to international test score results? More on that in a later post…
1 John Sener, “Standardized Tests and Foul Shooting: Look Out, Michael Jordan!“, ETCJ, 3/12/11.
2 John Sener, The Seven Futures of American Education: Improving Learning and Teaching in a Screen-Captured World, 2012, p. 78.
3 Daniel Arkin, “US Teens Lag in Global Education Rankings As Asian Countries Rise to the Top,” NBCNEWS/AP, 12/3/13.
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