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On the Distributions of Education Scores around the World

In that manner, intelligence may have a genetic base, but, still, differences in intelligence observed among different groups may be environmental in origin.”

The 2019 PISA results were released this month. PISA is the acronym for the Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), that measures the performance of 15-year-old students in math, science, and reading.

The whole point of this assessment is to compare the educational level of pupils across countries, so as to propose educational reforms. It is a commonsense idea, but, strangely, many on the Left do not like it. The Left has a long history of mistrusting any kind of educational assessment because—by their very nature—these assessments will rank some people as performing better than others. In the progressive worldview, this kind of inegalitarianism is anathema. If some test establishes that an ethnic group has better academic performance than another, so the argument goes, then it must be because that test is biased against the group that performs worse. In a particularly infamous and unfortunate decision, one California court ruled that an unbiased test, by definition, yields, “the same pattern of scores when administered to different groups of people.”

It is true that, in the early days of IQ testing, there were some biases in the choice of vocabulary and examples, but they have long been corrected. Most cross-national educational assessments (such as PISA) have been carefully designed and are mostly free of cultural biases, unless one believes that “two plus two equals four” may be true in China but not in Senegal.

The PISA results this year weren’t exactly surprising. China, Singapore, and Estonia are on top; Panama and the Dominican Republic are at the bottom. Now, this is not an entirely reliable metric; many countries have been left out, after all, while other countries have found ways of tempering with the results: China in particular, has selected the best schools from affluent regions as representatives of the whole country. But, even with its shortcomings, PISA sheds some light on educational performance. 

The PISA results coincide to some extent with cross-national IQ results. When English psychologist Richard Lynn and Finnish political scientist and sociologist Tatu Vanhanen set out to collect global IQ results (which formed the basis of their 2002 book IQ and the Wealth of Nations), they were accused of being racist; this was because they had the temerity to argue that some nations had smarter populations than others. One common criticism leveled against them (and similarly leveled against anybody who dares to propose IQ as a valid and reliable measure) is that IQ only measures the, “ability to take IQ tests.” But, it seems to me that the PISA results are at the very least a partial vindication of IQ as an accurate measurer of intelligence. IQ scores do predict academic performance, and, thus, it comes as no surprise that a country’s position on the IQ table—to a considerable degree—coincides with its position on the PISA table.

Why are East Asian and Northern European countries on the higher ends of these lists? This is a more complicated issue. Back in 1994, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein famously made the case that, perhaps, genetic factors played a role in the achievement gaps found among differing ethnic groups. Murray and Herrnstein were really only concerned with the United States, though (where African Americans consistently lag behind other ethnic groups), but some evolutionary psychologists have taken this thesis further. One in particular, J.P. Rushton, argued that due to harsh winters but more steady environmental conditions, Northern European and East Asian populations were naturally selected for higher intelligence.

Needless to say, the Left hates these claims, and many on the Left have resorted to all sorts of name-calling and even physical assault against defenders of these views. However, all the while, they have put forward little in the way of critical engagement and reasoned rebuttal. Like it or not, extensive research (most notably, Bouchard’s twin studies) do suggest that intelligence has a moderately high heritability index. This means that—up to a degree—differences in intelligence are, indeed, coded in genes. However, they are not necessarily distributed along racial lines, as Rushton’s interpretation implies. 

Even while acknowledging that intelligence does have a genetic base, that does not mean that differences in intelligence among groups are due to genes themselves. One author from the Left who does make reasoned criticisms of these claims is Richard Lewontin. One particularly important point raised by Lewontin is that—while in natural conditions there may be genetic differences of many traits within a population—exposure to environmental conditions may lead to greater differences between populations. In that manner, intelligence may have a genetic base, but, still, differences in intelligence observed among different groups may be environmental in origin. 

We know that improvements in education do pay off. James Flynn, a relevant researcher in this area (and who, incidentally, despite his anti-racist views, has been a recent victim of the ‘cancel culture’ promoted by the Left) has extensively documented that, over the last century, IQ scores have dramatically risen worldwide. This is called the Flynn effect. If intelligence were purely genetic, this would not be possible.

The PISA scores seem to be a confirmation of the Flynn effect. Each country’s position in the table is not fixed. The whole point of PISA is to asses academic performance in order to make recommendations for educational reforms. This betrays the belief that things can indeed change. This is good news for the Left. Biological differences seem to play little (if any) role in academic performance. But, the Left needs to take assessments such as PISA more seriously. And, inasmuch as PISA and IQ scores have high levels of concordance, the Left has much to repent for in its criticisms of IQ testing. PISA and IQ scores simply tell us that some populations perform better. They do not tell us that one race is superior to another; that performance differential, after all, could be entirely due to environmental conditions. But, in order to make the necessary adjustments to increase the performance of those who lag behind, we need to listen to the uncomfortable truths that these assessments may convey to us—rather than mindlessly tearing our garments upon hearing that some populations are finding themselves smarter than others.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80

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