It’s a lipstick-on-a-pig moment.
Those who have studied the test results have been trying, even agonizing to make them look good. No matter what they do, they still look bad. They look very bad. They look very bad for America.
One hesitates to look at the results of a test where America’s millennials competed against millennials around the world. After all, America’s millennials take severe offense if you dare suggest that they are chronic underachievers, even slackers. They have high self-esteem and do not care about how they compare with other people.
If you report that, when compared to their peers in other countries, they come in at or near the bottom, they will take serious offense and get seriously in your face.
Be that as it may, and being forearmed, I bring to your attention a story from the Washington Post. It recounts the results of a test that was given to millennials—people between the ages of 16 and 34—around the world.
Apparently, American millennials are now too proud to compete. They might console themselves with their false pride, but that’s the only consolation they can draw from these tests. Compared to their cohorts around the world, America’s millennials come is last or near-last by just about every metric.
The Post reports:
This exam, given in 23 countries, assessed the thinking abilities and workplace skills of adults. It focused on literacy, math and technological problem-solving. The goal was to figure out how prepared people are to work in a complex, modern society.
And U.S. millennials performed horribly.
That might even be an understatement, given the extent of the American shortcomings. No matter how you sliced the data – by class, by race, by education – young Americans were laggards compared to their international peers. In every subject, U.S. millennials ranked at the bottom or very close to it, according to a new study by testing company ETS.
The testers believed that American millennials would perform well. They were shocked and dismayed by the results:
U.S. millennials, defined as people 16 to 34 years old, were supposed to be different. They’re digital natives. They get it. High achievement is part of their makeup. But the ETS study found signs of trouble, with its authors warning that the nation was at a crossroads: “We can decide to accept the current levels of mediocrity and inequality or we can decide to address the skills challenge head on.”
The challenge is that, in literacy, U.S. millennials scored higher than only three countries.
In math, Americans ranked last.
In technical problem-saving, they were second from the bottom.
“Abysmal,” noted ETS researcher Madeline Goodman. “There was just no place where we performed well.”
But, what if we compare our best with their best, the best that America has to offer with the best students in other countries?
Unfortunately, the results are no better:
But surely America’s brightest were on top?
Nope. U.S. millennials with master’s degrees and doctorates did better than their peers in only three countries, Ireland, Poland and Spain. Those in Finland, Sweden and Japan seemed to be on a different planet.
Top-scoring U.S. millennials – the 90th percentile on the PIAAC test – were at the bottom internationally, ranking higher only than their peers in Spain. The bottom percentile (10th percentile) also lagged behind their peers. And the gap between America’s best and worst was greater than the gap in 14 other countries. This, the study authors said, signaled America’s high degree of inequality.
Among the take-aways is this: many American students have been given diplomas that they did not really earn. Our culture values self-esteem over achievement, unearned praise over true accomplishment:
The study called into question America’s educational credentialing system. While few American test-takers lacked a high school degree, the United States didn’t perform any better than countries with relatively high rates of failing to finish high school. And our college graduates didn’t perform well, either.
Naturally, the researchers were more than upset to see this. So they decided to check on the results of native-born Americans, especially those whose parents went to college. And they separated off the results of whites and Asian-Americans, notable world-beaters.
Unfortunately, the results were not encouraging:
ETS researchers tried looking for signs of promise – especially in math skills, which they considered a good sign of labor market success. They singled out native-born Americans. Nope. They tried native-born Americans with at least one college graduate parent – a big group when compared to other countries. That didn’t work. They looked at race – white and Asian Americans did better, but still fell behind similar top performers in other countries and below the OECD average.
The ETS study noted that a decade ago the skill level of American adults was judged mediocre. “Now it is below even that.” So Millennials are falling even further behind.
What does it all mean?
It means that the American educational establishment and the American psychological establishment, the people who dictate how we bring up children, have failed miserably.
Time to put in a call to the Tiger Mom, don’t you think?
Otherwise, you can put in a call to Alfred E. Newman and allow him to dust off his old slogan for a new generation: What, me worry?