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How public opinion about new PISA test scores is being manipulated (features commentary by Martin Carnoy)

December 2, 2013
Washington Post
Professor Martin Carnoy warns against drawing quick conclusions from the new PISA test scores.
Valerie Strauss

This Tuesday, new reading, math and science results will be released from the  Program  for International Student Assessment, or PISA, given every three years to 15-year-old students in more than 65 countries and education systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The results are always big news — and the usual average U.S. scores are always cause for great cries of concern about what they mean for the future of the country’s economic health and national security. They don’t mean much, if anything, but that doesn’t stop people from saying they do.

The following hard-hitting post on the release of the PISA scores was written by Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute,  a non-profit organization created to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers, and Martin Carnoy, education professor at  Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. It explains what international test score results  really mean and what they don’t mean, and also explains why the authors believe the U.S. Education Department is attempting not only only to inform the public about the results but “to manipulate public opinion.” This piece will appear on the EPI website.

This year a new Web site has been created just for PISA Day, called, of course,, where 10 organizations will host the official announcement of the PISA results and more. From the website:

The event will feature:

the official announcement by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria on the 2012 PISA results, country rankings, and a discussion with author Amanda Ripley (The Smartest Kids in the World) and students from around the globe;

a presentation by Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General of the OECD, containing in-depth findings from the report, including how the U.S. performed;

the first public release of new reports related to United States’s performance on the PISA, and the connections to college- and career-ready standards and deeper learning competencies;

interviews with global education leaders and schools that have participated in the OECD Test for Schools (based on PISA);

reactions to and lessons learned from the results presented by the ten host national education organizations.

By Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy

National average scores of students on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will be released Tuesday, and we urge commentators and education policymakers to avoid jumping to quick conclusions from a superficial “horse race” examination of these scores.

Typically, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is given an advance look at test score data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and issues press releases with conclusions based on its preliminary review of the results. The OECD itself also provides a publicized interpretation of the results. This year, ED and the OECD are planning a highly orchestrated event, “PISA Day,” to manipulate coverage of this release.

It is usual practice for research organizations (and in some cases, the government) to provide advance copies of their reports to objective journalists. That way, journalists have an opportunity to review the data and can write about them in a more informed fashion. Sometimes, journalists are permitted to share this embargoed information with diverse experts who can help the journalists understand possibly alternative interpretations.

In this case, however, the OECD and ED have instead given their PISA report to selected advocacy groups that can be counted on, for the most part, to echo official interpretations and participate as a chorus in the official release.1 These are groups whose interpretation of the data has typically been aligned with that of the OECD and ED—that American schools are in decline and that international test scores portend an economic disaster for the United States, unless the school reform programs favored by the administration are followed.

The department’s co-optation of these organizations in its official release is not an attempt to inform but rather to manipulate public opinion.

Read the full story here.

Find Martin Carnoy's research on PISA scores here.

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