NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

International Benchmarking of Student Achievement

June 20, 2012

While approaching the level of cliché, it is simply the case that, with the internationalization of the world economy, competition is not just with others in the same city or state.  International trade moves the location of economic activity to the place that has a comparative advantage in production, and international migration moves workers to where they will be best off, says Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

This speaks to the importance of a global mindset when assessing and determining national education policy.  Current students will not operate in a labor market like the one that exists today, but will instead be forced to compete with workers from around the world.  Therefore, if the United States is to maintain its traditional comparative advantage in human capital, education must be brought up to snuff.

To this end, greater use of international tests for benchmarking can be helpful in driving school districts to succeed and avoid malaise.  While there certainly is place for local- and state-level testing, international assessments offer numerous advantages.

  • Current testing procedures suggest that states or localities that perform relatively low on their specific tests could stand to improve.
  • However, higher performance on these tests by some districts and states often encourages the development of a complacent outlook that has serious side effects.
  • Comparison with international counterparts, however, would make high-performance localities aware that they can and should strive to continue to improve.
  • Finally, regular international comparison would serve as a persistent reminder to Americans that they are gradually falling behind in the race to educate, thereby expanding the coalition of those dedicated to improving the country's education system.

Crucially, authorities at the local level would have to embrace such a plan in order for it to be effective.  While the federal government is taking on a larger role in education, the lion's share of education policy is still determined and applied by districts.

Also, the implementation of international testing standards should not compel a reverse-engineering process, wherein districts adapt curriculum to the preferences of an international body.  Rather, it should be taken into account that current international standards will reflect general preparedness that should be taught in every classroom in the developed world.

Source: Eric A. Hanushek, "International Benchmarking of Student Achievement," Education Next, June 5, 2012.

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