When shopping for a car, dishwasher, or cell phone, a prospective buyer will often go to the Consumer Reports to learn about important aspects of the possible purchase. How does the product’s performance compare to that of its competitors–and why? What are an item’s best and worse features? What should be known about how it was made?

The care we give to buying a vacuum cleaner is absent when we consider the test scores released to the news media by the states and local school districts. And, from those test scores the news media, politicians, and the general public reach simplistic conclusions about the effectiveness of public education.

It’s as if there was a Consumer Reports on education that simply consisted of a row of numbers for schools with no further explanation on how to interpret those results or of the factors that produced them. Such a magazine would be meaningless.

Test scores can only be understood correctly if one knows the limited usefulness of one test and of the factors that influenced the outcomes. For instance, a code of ethics binds creators of standardized tests to caution users against making a major decision affecting a student based on one test administration. Another caution is that test scores often reflect the socioeconomic status of the student’s family.

Those admonishments reminding users of the limitations of tests are swept aside when the press release comes from the school district or state with the scores for each school and for school district. The news media’s conclusions are generally summed up in the headlines: “Test scores plummet,” “Students show no progress,” “Slight increase in test scores,” or “Scores on state tests show increase.”

Our standard ought to be that judging the quality of the schools is at least as important as purchasing a dehumidifier. Left behind should be the simplistic notion that education quality can be summed up in one number.

On January 20, 2015, the National Superintendents’ Roundtable and the Horace Mann League issued School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, which is a much-needed guide to understanding test scores.

That consumer-friendly report uses multiple indicators of social and economic factors that help to explain the widely publicized results of tests commonly administered in nine countries. (A disclaimer is that I am a member of the Horace Mann League but had nothing to do with the conception, production, or release of this report.)

James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents’ Roundtable, explained the purpose of the study: “We don’t oppose using international assessments as one measure of performance. But as educators and policymakers, we need to compare ourselves with similar nations and on a broader set of indicators that put school performance in context-not just a single number in an international ranking.”

Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the nine countries that are included in this study since U.S. student scores from international tests are frequently compared to those of students in these other countries.

The study looks at certain social and economic factors since a teacher has to deal with their effects on children. The greatest levels of economic inequity among those nine countries are in the U.S. and China. Our country shows the greatest social stress among those countries, e.g. high rates of death from violence and from drugs and births to adolescent women. In terms of support for young families, e.g. access to preschool programs and proportion of Gross Domestic Product for social expenditures, the U.S. ranks at the bottom just above China.

This study is not all gloom and doom. Looking at some other factors, the performance of the U.S. goes from middling to good. Student learning outcomes are in the middle of this group of nine nations. Americans are willing to spend more on education than are citizens in comparison nations. Moreover, the U. S. leads the nine nations in years of schooling completed among adults, as well as in the proportion of adults with a high school diploma and in the proportion with a bachelor’s degree.

A strong factor in the performance of Americans is that “the United States remains the land of the second chance.” Americans, unlike those in some other countries, are given multiple opportunities to become better educated and credentialed.

This leads to a general conclusion: “The United States has the most highly educated workforce among these nine nations.” As reassuring as that sounds, other reports have shown that some other countries are overtaking the U.S. lead in education attainment. So, we would be foolish to ignore the social and economic stresses faced by American students which are greater than those encountered by students in most other countries, as explained in this report. Our current advantage may be jeopardized by failing to address those factors.

The Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents’ Roundtable have rendered a service to the country by educating us on the factors that influence student test scores and that help to frame the long-term results of the American educational system.

The Consumer Reports helps to educate buyers about products so that they can be better informed. Americans must do the same when it concerns the schools. All is not good, and all is not bad. But, we should be as well informed as we can be to make the schools better and educate children for a competitive future.

Looking only at student test scores will not do that. Understanding what a good education is requires more than a single number.


This article written by Jack Jennings first appeared on February 10, 2015 in the Huffington Post.