Another Round of International Reading Scores

In 2013, the Department of Health in the Philippines shared data that showed diseases of the heart as the top cause of deaths in the country. Infant mortality is significant but the main causes are pneumonia, bacterial infection, and other respiratory diseases. Acute respiratory infection is the most common disease in 2014 in the Philippines. Yet, the Aquino administration worked with haste even without a congressional budget appropriation to launch a massive dengue vaccination with still ongoing clinical trials. The question of lack of prioritization is undeniable. But enough about Dengvaxia, such neglect is evident is so many government policies including especially those that pertain to public education. And the reason is simple. People are either not seeing what the real problems are or they merely have an agenda that is different from actually solving the problem.

Above copied from the Philippines' Department of Health
Above copied from the Philippines' Department of Health

In Philippine basic education, one of the biggest challenges is that fourth grade students are unable to demonstrate proficiency in what they should have learned in classrooms. International tests point out major shortcomings in primary education. Yet, instead of addressing problems in the early years of basic education, the Aquino administration launches a very expensive program that adds two years to the end of high school. The similarity between Dengvaxia and Deped's K to 12 is truly undeniable.

Part of the reason why national policies seem totally distracted from the real issues is mass media. The public's understanding of the problem is often shaped by how the information is presented. What is given in bold and large font size often hides the much more important details. This problem, of course, is not exclusive to the Philippines.

One specific instance, and this is very recent, is the release of International Reading Test Results in the United States. US News comes with the following headline:

Above copied from US News

Students did score a lower average than the three top scorers: Russia (581), Singapore (576) and HongKong (569). The US scored only 549 - Still, this score is still on a relatively high end compared to the fixed scale centerpoint of 500. And when the scores are examined in greater detail, one can see that the average does not really tell the complete story.

Here are the average scores for year 2011 and 2016 based on race. Every race is above the centerpoint although both Blacks and Hispanics are not performing as well as Whites and Asians.

Above drawn from data obtained from PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016

Looking at race, however, likewise does not provide a complete picture since there is another factor that also separates high-performers from low-performers. That factor is poverty. Using data regarding how many of the students in a particular school qualify for reduced/free lunch, one finds the following distribution.

Above drawn from data obtained from PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016

Schools that are attended more by poor children score lower in this reading exam. Seeing the above results, a more appropriate and informative title should be:

Reading Scores Show US Schools Still Failing to Provide Equity in Education.

Fourth graders in the US are definitely not lagging behind other countries. Students in schools where the reduced/free lunch eligibility is less than 50% are performing as well as the students in the top countries. Only by seeing what the data really tell us can we decide on what is appropriate to do. It is clear that the problem lies in the challenges faced by schools that mainly serve children from poor families. The more proper solution then is to put more resources to these schools and communities to help teachers address the greater needs in these impoverished neighborhoods. Solutions other than this is really no different from spending billions of cash to purchase a vaccine that does not really address the major disease a country is facing.