Innumeracy and Chicanery

Nick Kristof in the Green RoomI am no fan of standardized testing, but New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof appears to be. And his 4/25 column (“Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?”), which uses such measuring tools to make a point, is distressingly misleading.

In order to demonstrate our country’s incompetence in mathematics, he presents three questions from a 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test administered worldwide to eighth graders.

The first question:

math_integersWhat is the sum of the three consecutive whole numbers with 2n as the middle number?


Only 37% of USA kids got it right (the correct answers are at the bottom of this post). Kristof emphasizes how embarrassing this result is by citing how kids from “backward” countries like Indonesia, Ghana, and Iran all did better.

The second question:

800_17513_mdHow many degrees does a minute hand of a clock turn through from 6:20 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the same day?

680 degrees
600 degrees
540 degrees
420 degrees

Only 22% of American students got this one right.

And the third:

SawingWoodGraphicA piece of wood was 40 centimeters long. It was cut into 3 pieces. The lengths in centimeters are 2x-5, x+7, and x+6. What is the length of the longest piece?

This was even worse; just 7% got the correct answer.

The problem is Kristof cheated. He cherry-picked those three questions. Out of nearly 100 questions on the test, he chose three that American students did very badly on.

To prove this, I “randomly” selected the six questions that came before and after the three chosen by Kristof. Here are the American students’ scores (with the international average in parentheses): 89% (72%), 88% (73%), 29% (39%), 58% (43%), 38% (26%), 10% (16%). The American eighth graders outpaced the average on four of those six. And for the entire test, they scored ninth among the 42 participating countries, trailing only South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Russian Federation, Israel, and Finland.

Ninth is not an exemplary showing. We can and should do better.

Numeracy is important. There is no question about that. But shame on Mr. Kristof; one does not have to manipulate figures to make that point.

By the way, Indonesia and Iran were far down the list, with Ghana coming in dead last.


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[6n, 600 degrees, 15 cm]
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