The Dunce Gap

Reports that schools are not the real problem in the United States' poor showing in the arena of international test scores. Comments from professor of educational research at the University of North Carolina, Richard Jaeger; Societal factors; Childhood poverty rate; Criticism from public figures; More.

By PT Staff, published November 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

It's election year— and open season on the nation's schools. As candidates ritually grimace about how far test scores of the nation's students lag behind those in the rest of the world, they desperately flog the American school system and call for a drastic overhaul.

There's only one problem. The evidence doesn't hold up to scrutiny, Richard Jaeger, Ph.D., reported to the American Educational Research Association. What politicians ignore is that the United States' showing in the arena of international test scores is not uniformly bleak. And the schools are not the real problem.

Societal factors such as economic support and family stability are well known to be essential to school success, charges Jaeger, a professor of educational research at the University of North Carolina, who analyzed the results of achievement tests administered in 14 nations in 1991. America's rising childhood poverty rate, its rank as first in percentage of unemployed students, high divorce rates, and infant mortality rates -- a stubborn mark of disadvantage -- account for all the disparity between American and international students' achievement.

Thirteen-year-old Americans taking the First International Mathematics Study, for example, ranked fourth, behind students in Australia, Germany, and Great Britain. But the U.S. childhood poverty rate is the highest of the four countries and predicts virtually all the variation in scores. Almost 60 percent of that variation is predicted solely by the poverty rate for single-parent families.

If societal factors underlie the discrepancies in international comparisons, how to account for such glaring educational differences as average class size, time spent in math classes, and daily problem-solving lessons? These turn out to have no bearing at all on test score variation.

The nations scoring highest in math (Korea and Taiwan), for example, actually had the largest class sizes.

Societal factors have always accounted for great variability in educational achievement. It's just that the population of U.S. test-takers has changed to include a larger proportion of the disadvantaged. In fact, says Jaeger, while mean scores of the total population of highschool students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test have declined over the past three decades, the mean scores of every ethnic group has increased for the past 15 years.

Why, then, do so many public figures criticize U.S. performance in international scholastic achievement and cry for strict educational reform while overlooking school kids' social welfare?

"School-bashing enjoys a long tradition in this country", offers Jaeger. "It appeals to the public, it grabs attention, and it doesn't cost anything."