Who cares about international test scores?

“Our country scores worse than Finland, Japan, India, … on standardised tests.”

So what?

Magazines cite the sorry state of education as often as I scrub clean the stove-top. What’s the big deal? Why should I care if another country’s students do better on exams (even if it’s the same exams and all data comparison problems have been solved)?

What are they actually measuring? And does it covary with anything I should care about?

In my experience,

  • Every job I’ve had has required less than 8th grade level education.
  • Academic interests (like wanting to understand topoi or sheaves) often distract me from more pecuniary uses of my time.
  • Schools do not teach you to seek out a customer, figure out what s/he wants, and figure out how you or you-and-some-pals can supply that. Which would be the basic logic of all business, as well as how capitalism works.
  • Education made me over-confident in my ability to succeed in the non-academic world (I won’t use the term “real world” because 16-year-olds forced into classrooms are really being imprisoned there).
  • My uncles who were engineers were awarded patents, one was chief engineer of a steel plant for 20 years, they all stayed married to their same wives and loved their families and lived long lives—and all of them were terrible students.
  • A relation of mine went to high school with Kurt Vonnegut, got better grades than he did by far, and did not write Slaughterhouse V or Cat’s Cradle.
  • John Updike was a good student; Hunter S Thompson was a bad student; James Joyce was a good student; Charles Bukowski was a bad student. Jack Kerouac was a bad student. I think Antoine St-Exupéry was a bad student. How about Tom Clancy, Hubert Selby Jr., Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Chuck Palahniuk, Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolf, John Cheever, David Sedaris, Russell Hoban, Stephen King, J K Rowling, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atkinson, Marguerite Yourcenar, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood? I have my guesses. But I see no correlation between writing an enduring or profitable work of fiction and success in school.
  • The only person I know with a 3rd-grade education is extremely capable, reasonably wealthy, has 8 wonderful kids (4 adopted; his wife is someone else’s widow), and is a very happy person. His ability to reason abstractly about History and Philosophy is pretty bad, but he can fly a plane, do field medicine, build a barn, fix stuff, he’s fearless to swim up to crocodiles in the river, and he’s survived in a civil war zone, even being held up by an automatic weapon at gunpoint. I realise that’s not a lot of observations about the uneducated but that’s the one outlying datum I’m working with.
  • Some say “Society can’t function if people don’t know X”, where X is history, biology, statistics, logic, economics, God’s plan, neuroscience, or their own system of government & laws. Guess what. It has functioned so far without people knowing those things.
  • There are tons of scammy masters’ degrees that a university will be happy to sell you but which provide no guarantees of moving you ahead in life. I’m talking about low-quantile law schools, masters of financial engineering, masters of library science, masters in development studies (very ambiguous, I know—it means anti-poverty), masters in political science, masters in economics (a friend who got a masters from Johns Hopkins several years ago has been an administrative assistant since), ….
  • The things I found I needed to know in running a business, had squat-all to do with academics.
  • From what I hear-tell, getting a nice cushy office job has more to do with who you know and people skills than with academics.
  • Being the next John Stewart, Erin Burnett, Tina Fey, Stephen Spielberg, Kanye West, Wyclef Jean, Jim Cramer, Kim Kardashian, Hugh Hefner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Meryl Streep, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Letterman, Larry David, Dr. Dre, or Ricky Gervais is unrelated to these exams.
  • One area where autodidacts seem to get up in the world is programming—and that’s not taught in school.
  • Finding and falling in love with the right person, and nurturing that relationship, is unrelated to these exams.
  • Exams don’t teach you to be happy.
  • Exams don’t teach you how to make money (nor how to not-lose money).
  • Exams don’t teach you to be a better lover.
  • Exams don’t teach you to be a better parent.
  • Exams don’t teach you to be a better friend.

When you hear “Our students are doing terribly on international exams”, what do you think that means? It probably means that other kids are better at doing matrix operations and solving physics problems quickly. What relation those abilities have to success later in life, I don’t know.


About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
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