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The Mismeasure of Education: Worthy Knowledge in the Age of Globalization

22 October 2009 15,231 2 Comments

Last week, published a post of mine on its Thought Leader’s blog. I am reposting it here.


In my new book Catching Up or Leading the Way, I mostly focus on issues facing education in the United States noting that the current education reform efforts, with their emphasis on standards, testing, and outcome-based (read test score-based) accountability, are unlikely to make Americans “globally competitive.”

Instead, what America needs is an education system that cultivates a diversity of talents and develops “unique niche talents” that are not available at a cheaper price elsewhere in the world or that cannot be replaced by machines, the argument Daniel Pink makes in his book A Whole New Mind (Pink 2005).

Although the book specifically addresses education in the U.S., I believe the message also applies globally.

I see a growing global trend to reduce the meaning of education into a few numbers. I call this practice the “mismeasure of education,” borrowing the idea from the late Harvard paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould who wrote The Mismeasure of Man to debunk the claim “that intelligence can be meaningfully abstracted as a single number capable of ranking all people on a linear scale of intrinsic and unalterable mental worth” (Gould 1996, p. 20).

Countries that have a history of measuring education with standardized tests, that is, using students’ test scores on a few subjects as indicators of the worthiness of individual students’ education and the quality of education provided by teachers and schools, continue the practice despite their efforts to change. In the meantime, countries that have traditionally relied less on standardized testing have been moving toward the practice. Worse yet, test results of international comparative studies such as TIMSS and PISA have been used as measures of the quality of education in countries. Today, many countries rank or grade their schools based on test results and countries pay a lot of attention to their relative rank on PISA and TIMSS tests.

There does not seem to be anything wrong with assessing students’ education and their providers’ performance. After all, we want to know how well our students are doing and ensure that teachers and schools are doing their job. We should also be happy to see that international ranking of education quality may prompt governments to examine their education policy and hopefully increase education investment.

However, there are a number of problems associated with this reductionist approach to education.

First of all, as the quality of education is reduced to test scores on a few subjects, we run the risk of narrowing the definition of education, and consequently, narrowing students’ educational experiences. One could argue that this does not have to happen. Theoretically true but in reality quite unlikely. The reason is very simple: when test scores are attached with great significance or high stakes, what is tested is what gets taught. And evidence abounds: the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been shown to have led the reduction of time for education activities and subjects that are not tested and China has been struggling to expand school curriculum and other education activities beyond what is included in its high stakes College Entrance Exam for a long time.

Secondly, when test scores are used to rank education conditions of nations, national leaders and the concerned public are likely to pay attention to the scores and would want the scores on the tested subjects to rise, which again is not necessarily bad. But what could happen is that all nations will be focusing on teaching the few subjects that are included on international tests. As a result, we would see a global homogenization of curriculum, that is, schools globally will try to compete who can teach the same thing better. But that same thing is only a narrow set of subjects and at this time it is math, science, and literacy.

Of course, if the tested subjects are only what our children, globally, need to succeed in the future and are able to comprehensively and accurately reflect the quality of education, this is just fine. But the problem is that they are not.

Math, science, and literacy are undoubtedly very important basics for all students but there are by no means the only components of a good education—what about morality, passion, creativity, understanding of history, society, and humanities, arts, music, social responsibility, and the ability to work together? That’s why test scores have been shown to be poor predictors of future successes of individuals (Goleman 1995) and nations (Baker 2007; Tienken 2008). So the first negative consequence of “mismeasure of education” is quite obvious: a less diverse education environment and narrower curriculum for students.

There is also another negative consequence: it damages the world’s capacity to work together in the global economy by reducing diversity of talents and skills and hampers some nations’ capacity to prepare talents to support their own economy. Today’s world is extremely diverse in terms of cultural traditions, economical development, political system, natural resources, and educational capacities. Different countries may need different types of workers to support their own economy, thus certain knowledge, skills, and talents may be more valuable and in need in different societies. For example, what I can do and know is of little or no value in my village in China, where the knowledge of tending and driving a water buffalo is much more useful.

Moreover, the global economy provides enough challenges and opportunities that need a diversity of talents. Thus, instead of having every one learn the same thing and compete in the same arena, it would be much more productive to encourage different societies to capitalize on their existing diversities and develop unique education systems and devise unique education opportunities.

In some ways, the global economic competition is like the Olympic Games—it is very competitive but the competition takes place in many areas. People with different athletic talents do not compete in one single game and are not judged by one criterion—imagine we reduce the Games to only swimming and using that to judge all athletes, what happens to the ones who can run fast, jump high, or have great endurance?

Finally, the focus on a few subjects or mismeasure of education can distract us from addressing challenges facing different societies and communities as well as all of us as human beings. It may lead communities to abandon their traditional strengths, local values, and ignore what is important locally. It also distracts us from working to educate our children to think as a member of the human race, not just a member of a nation or state.


Baker, K. (2007). “Are International Tests Worth Anything?” Phi Delta Kappan 89(2): 101-104.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York, Bantam Books.

Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York, Northon.

Pink, D. H. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. New York, Riberhead Books.

Tienken, C. H. (2008). “Rankings of International Achievement Test Performance and Economic Strength: Correlation or Conjecture?” International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership 3(4): 1-15.

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