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The Real Test

by Tom Struble record 
November 2001

The record of students in the United States in international comparisons over the last 50 years has ranged from well below average to about average in nearly all tests. Yet the United States is the undisputed leader in science and technology and maintains the greatest economy, whereas Japan, a perennial high scorer, enters its second decade of recession. So what significant effect do two generations of poor test results have? None. None at all.

Perhaps the tests, not the results, deserve scrutiny. Either the tests do not compare similar students or they do not measure anything enduring. Testing students in the early grades is especially troubling. Comparing a fourth grader in the United States with a fourth grader in Italy is like comparing a Ford with a Fiat while both cars are still on the assembly line. A comparison at that stage is meaningless. The only reasonable comparison should be made at the end of the program. At that point, students from the United States begin to shine.

Comparisons of graduates accurately reflect the success of students from the United States. After students leave the public school system, they go on to work or to further education. In both endeavors, they become world leaders. Graduates of schools in the United States advance to further education at one of the highest rates in the world. They complete college at the highest rate in the world. They earn degrees in science and engineering at the highest rate in the world and have won more Nobel prizes in science than the rest of the world combined. They join a work force that is smart enough to be the most productive in the world.

International comparisons of students have provided a half-century of misleading results. Let's focus instead on measures that matter. The real test of a public school system is the performance of its graduates.


Tom Struble, a teacher for 29 years, teaches geometry and algebra at Unionville High School in Pennsylvania. A presenter at NCTM conventions, he won the 1992 Business Week award for innovation in mathematics and is a Sci-Mat fellow.



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