I've heard that people are complaining everyone are getting dumber because of popular culture and the Internet. I read an article in cracked that said people are actually getting smarter because of improving education. The question is, are people really getting dumber or simply acting dumb?
Here's an example of where the confusion comes from. This is a fairly representative USA Today story that bemoans the poor performance of U.S. students. Many such stories have been published in the past few years. (Indeed, probably since at least the early 80s.)
United States students are continuing to trail behind their peers in a pack of higher performing nations, according to results from a key international assessment.
Note those first two words: In ranking. At first glance the story might seem to be asserting that U.S. students are getting dumber. But after a listing of U.S. student rankings among various nations of the world, the story states:
Those scores are all higher than those from 2003 and 2006, but far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada. [emphasis added]
So if we try to look at the scores objectively, comparing year-over-year, we may not be #1 at present, but we do seem to be getting smarter. Right? But then follows this quote:
"This is an absolute wake-up call for America," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education."
If our Education Secretary can't understand any kind of measurement except a ranking, and thus regards a measured improvement as "extraordinarily challenging", then it sounds to me like Mr. Duncan himself has an education problem.
I will give kudos to this story for being detailed. It examines actual average score differences further down. But it's the quotes that draw your eyes, and the quotes all say the results are a disaster.
Alfie Kohn wrote this in one of his books in regards to school or district rankings on standardized tests, and I think the same principle applies here:
One expert on testing suggests that if newspapers insist on publishing such a chart, they should at least run it where it belongs, in the sports section.