There is a close analogy between the concept of the effectiveness of an individual school, and the concept of the effectiveness of the national education system.
The publication of league tables in relation to examination results, whether national or local, can improve the effectiveness of an individual school, by stimulating a useful process of analysis and action which leads to a genuine raising of educational standards. Alternatively, pressure to move up the league tables can trigger teacher stress and short-term anti-educational solutions, like rejection of poor attenders or low-attaining pupils by their nearest schools, or changing to an examination board that sets less challenging questions and gives higher grades for a given level of performance. Hard-working teachers may become disillusioned deciding with some justification that league table results do not provide a valid evaluation of their own effectiveness. Similarly, the publication of international league tables can all too easily be used by politicians and others to put additional pressure on an already over-burdened education system, and to justify short-term policies which may not address genuine weaknesses.
The argument will be made in this chapter that, as with school league tables, the information in international league tables is often too technically flawed to serve as an accurate measure of national effectiveness. The remainder of the chapter is devoted mainly to the scrutiny of how performance is viewed in mathematics, since mathematics is both the subject thought to be most susceptible to international comparisons, and the one where the political response has been the most frequent and far-reaching.
Examples of the manipulation of international comparisons for political ends can be seen in recent events. In 1994, 45 countries took part in TIMSS (the Third International Mathematics and Science Study), the largest ever international comparative survey of attainment in mathematics and science. The results for the 13-year-old sample were known by May 1996, but the testing agencies and government officials in each country were required to maintain confidentiality until mid-November, when there would be synchronized press conferences in each participating country. The delay before this official announcement was protracted in order to ensure that the