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What’s in a Score?

American students don’t score at the top of the class in math and science compared with students from other industrialized countries. They’re average, and sometimes below average.

Does that matter? Not a bit, says Keith Baker, a former U.S. Education Department analyst, and he says he can prove it.

In an article due to be published later this year, Baker looks at how well math scores predict the performance of a nation’s economy. The answer: They don’t.

Baker’s analysis begins with the scores of the 12-year-olds from 11 industrialized nations who took part in the First International Math Study (FIMS) in 1964. American students came in second to last, ahead of only Sweden. Baker looked at what happened decades later when those 12-year-olds were running the U.S. economy. America’s economy grew at a rate of 3.3 percent per year from 1992 to 2002. The countries that scored higher than the U.S. grew at a slower rate—2.5 percent—during the same period. All in all, countries that did better in the test competition did worse in the economic competition.

Did the higher scores result in more innovation—which might show up in the number of patents? No again. The United States “clobbered the world on creativity, with 326 patents per million people,” compared with 127 per million in the countries whose kids scored higher, Baker reports.

Why? Baker has a theory, although he can’t prove it. “It turns out the elementary school teachers who have been saying all along that there is more to education than what is reflected in test scores were right and the ‘experts’ were wrong,” he says. That doesn’t mean the scores are meaningless, he explains, but once a country achieves a certain level of academic achievement, focusing more effort and money on the skills measured by tests doesn’t pay off.

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