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January 09, 2013
Back in January, a Bloomberg News ranking of the world’s most innovative countries punctured the theory that low U.S. test scores are acceptable because U.S. students are happier and more creative than their overseas counterparts. Those (undeniably fuzzy) metrics don’t prove that high-ranking countries like South Korea and Japan produce more innovative students, but they certainly cast a shadow over this romantic, goofball justification of U.S. underperformance, which we’ve seen from multiple sources including (of course) Diane Ravitch and Alfie Kohn.
Well, now there’s more. And the news is still bad for the low-score apologists.
Two findings are important. First, there turns out to be a strong, positive correlation between creative problem-solving performance and straightforward, traditional, familiar (if often bleak) math, science, and reading scores. Rather than a tradeoff, subject scores seem to buttress problem-solving skills—or at least to originate from the same source, sort of like twins.
Second, two of the countries with the best creative problem solvers in the world are South Korea and Japan—the same two countries that ranked first and fourth on Bloomberg’s innovation index, albeit nations that, perversely, are often criticized for robbing their students of the very thing at which they now appear to be the best.
Moreover, not only do South Korea and Japan have super-high scores on the problem-solving assessment (second and third in the world, respectively), but they also exceeded expectations more than any other countries. (The correlation noted above means that OECD can use core-subject scores to predict problem-solving performance. When a country’s problem-solving scores are better than that prediction, that country has exceeded OECD’s expectation for it.) Turns out that just nine of forty-five participating countries pulled off that feat—and South Korea and Japan topped the list.
Observe that the U.S. appears on the list a mere tick below Japan; but before the drums and bugles are rolled out, consider that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. According to the OECD, strong relative performance likely bodes well for countries with high core-subject scores—countries like South Korea and Japan. It might imply that these places “provide learning opportunities that prepare students particularly well for handling complex, real-life problems in contexts that they do not usually encounter at school.” But for countries with low scores in the core academic subjects, OECD says strong relative performance might indicate that their schools are producing students who score below their potential in math, science, and reading. In other words, these schools may be doing a poor job of developing the human capital that walks into their classrooms.
America’s subject-matter scores are technically average (i.e., they’re near the OECD mean), so one might say the lessons are mixed. However, considering our GDP and our ambitions in the world, such scores must be termed low, not average. (Talk about expectations!) So if the latest PISA data offer any solace to the U.S., it lies in the ability of our fifteen-year-olds to do well despite our education system, not because of it.
If there’s true good news in the data, it belongs to countries like South Korea and Japan, which have again demonstrated that there’s no tradeoff between test scores and innovation. Defenders of low scores are just going to have to find another excuse.
 As with all abstract cognitive abilities, measurement is tricky. Nevertheless, the test appears to assess what it purports to assess, and others (such as Daniel Willingham) have said as much. We’ll know more when OECD releases its technical report.