Call off the Horse Race

Article excerpt

It should have been a time of celebration. When the rankings of U.S. fourth-graders on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released last June, American youngsters were among the leaders of the pack, placing at or near the top tier of the 26 participating countries in both subjects. In fact, fourth-graders in only one other nation - Korea - had significantly higher science scores. And in math, U.S. fourth-graders scored above the international average.

But, if the press accounts I saw were typical, the release of the fourth-grade data turned out to be just another occasion to pick at the scab of U.S. school failure. The press adopted a "yes, but" tone and expended most of its space on a rehash of the eighth-grade TIMSS performance data, which had been released in November 1996. Among the 41 participating nations in that eighth-grade study, U.S. students ranked 28th in math and 17th in science. Meanwhile, President Clinton and his secretary of education, Richard Riley, used the release of the fourth-grade rankings as an excuse to reissue a call for higher standards, in order to bring those lagging eighth-graders up to par.

I confess that I wasn't surprised. Syndicated newspaper columnist William Raspberry pointed out in late April 1997 that "the real problem for us journalists is that we doubt good news makes good stories. . . . Good news, we fear, is innocuous and tepid stuff best left for cub reporters." And the propensity of politicians to seize any occasion to push their pet programs is legendary.

No, surprise was not my response. The correct word would be dismay. I was dismayed once again at this nation's horse-race mentality. For Americans, winning is everything - and, along the way, reason often goes by the boards.

Secretary Riley noted last June that one explanation for the difference between fourth- and eighth-grade math and science scores is that, worldwide, fourth-graders are learning the basics in math and science - but, by eighth-grade, many countries are teaching higher-level skills than are currently being taught in American schools. …


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