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November 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 32

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The Score Counts


by Deborah D. Thornton



Much time, energy, and money has been spent over the last 20 or more years trying to figure out what is wrong with the American K-12 education system and how to fix it. Trying to figure out what is wrong with American children.


For example, the ACT test, which has four sections – math, science, English, and reading – has a maximum possible score of 36. In this year’s round of testing for high school juniors and seniors, nationally only 39 percent met three or more of the college readiness benchmark scores. The college readiness benchmark means that the student has a 75 percent chance of earning a “C” or better in a freshman college class in that subject area. In addition, another 31 percent did not meet a single one of the benchmarks.[1] Repeat that again. One of three was not ready in any way for college work. Not only did they not earn an excellent score, they did not demonstrate that they were fundamentally ready.


Here in Iowa, 22,526 students graduating in 2013 took the ACT. Of those, 32 percent met the college readiness benchmark in all four sections – better than the national average, but still only one of three.[2]


Yet these are high school students who have presumably done well enough to be passed from first grade to second, from fifth to sixth, from eighth to ninth. Every year they have been told, “Yes, you are good enough to move ahead.” And even with these poor scores, many will be “passed” from twelfth grade into the freshman level in college.


In college, it changes. Our children must spend money – their parents’, theirs, or taxpayers. Many take remedial classes, spending money attempting to learn that which they should have learned before being handed a high school diploma. Any many finally fail, leaving college with no degree – and lots of debt.


Why? How do we fix it?


The answer is that though we test our students every year, at every level, it never counts. Even if they do not do well, they are passed onto the next grade. Neither parents nor students take the test results seriously. Many parents and social activists argue that the tests are biased or only measure one type of knowledge – and that we should not expect low-income students, minority students, or even generic middle-class white students to do well. It’s not fair. Our children will do just fine in life and work even with bad test scores.


However, students in countries such as Finland, Germany, Poland, and South Korea – students studying in schools without iPads, white boards, or football teams – do very well on tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is the worldwide benchmark test. In fact, many of these students are beating the pants off of our American children.


On the 2009 PISA, which focused on the reading skills of 15-year-olds, the American students were “average” in reading with a rank of 14 out of 34 and ranked 17 on average in science. In mathematics we ranked 25 of 34, well below average.[3] What can we do to fix this?


For the children in most other countries, these tests do count. And more importantly, both the children and the parents believe they count. They take the tests seriously and do the work required to score well.


As Amanda Ripley says in the book, The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way, the answer is simple. We must take testing seriously and teach our children to do so as well. Not because we’re “teaching to the test,” but because doing the work required and learning the things necessary to score well on these tests builds discipline, builds commitment, and builds confidence. As Ripley documents, even our own children – after being exposed to schools and teachers in other countries – recognize that American schools are easier. The teachers are their “friends,” they’re “nice.” What the American parents and teachers are not doing is requiring rigor from our children.


For example, many of the students in other countries spend more time in school. They take more difficult classes. Schools in these countries do not hire football and basketball coaches to teach math without a math degree. Football does teach good lessons, but not those we are testing and not to all children. In order to teach higher level math, you need a math degree. Further, American students need to learn that they can learn, they can master a difficult subject, if they work at it and study, spending the time and effort required.


One of the key factors that Ripley notes is that the students who learn are those whose parents spend as little as 15 minutes a day, every day, reading to them and doing math with them. Those students recognize that if their parent gives time to something, it is important. They are important. The parent does not have to be well-educated. The parent just has to help their child understand that education is important and that it is important to work at learning. One does not do that by preaching or by lecturing. A parent shows by doing.


That is the difference between American children and others. It is also something which is easy to fix. It does not take a government program, more money, or special rules and regulations. It takes understanding that we are shortchanging our children. It takes the will, by all parents – no matter how busy, how much work we have to do – to teach our children to learn.


The score does count, and the things one learns in order to achieve the score count even more.



[1] “Challenges in Readiness Persist Among US High School Grads,” ACT, August 21, 2013, <> accessed on October 10, 2013.
[2] “ACT Profile Report – State, Graduating Class 2013 – Iowa,” ACT, p. 7, <> accessed on October 11, 2013.
[3] “Lessons from PISA for the United States, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education,” Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development Publishing, p. 26, <> accessed on October 12, 2013.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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