achievements at later ages, for example, at age 22 or so, after many American students have had an opportunity to complete postsecondary forms of education. Here, in fact, one could use household samples to great effect and also gain a much better sense of what American students (as well as students from other nations) end up knowing at a more realistic “school-leaving” age than the one most recently defined in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).3
The bigger point, of course, is that we shouldn’t let the age group comparisons available in current cross-national studies drive the standards-setting process in American education. Instead, we should use our own sense of desirable standards for learning at particular ages to define the strategy for selecting samples in cross-national studies, and this might involve sampling older students on a household basis. In this regard, the International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted by Statistics Canada, represents a welcome addition to the portfolio of cross-national surveys of educational achievement. One would hope, however, that future surveys of older populations—especially a realistic sample of “school leavers” suited to the American context—would include achievement assessments in more subject areas than just literacy.
All of this raises an interesting possibility for the design of future cross-national surveys. For one, cooperating agencies conducting this research might consider expanding the age groups sampled in such studies, including not only an older sample of school leavers, but also preschool populations.4 In fact, an expansion of the age groups sampled in cross-national surveys would give us a much better picture of educational achievement across the life course in different societies, providing crucial information about patterns of achievement as these unfold prior to entry into schooling, at critical junctures during the school-age years, and at a more realistic end point than the one typically defined in current and past cross-national surveys. Moreover, analyses of achievement across the life course would give us a much better sense of how patterns of schooling in different countries affect the distribution of human capital in society, especially as people move across the life course. Currently, we get some sense of how human capital is distributed at various stages of the life course within the United States in the longitudinal studies program of the National Center for Education Statistics. But I know of no systematic program of cross-national research dealing with this critical question.
To this point, I have been discussing the use of cross-national surveys to set benchmarks for student achievement in the United States. In the