The 2007 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

Tom Loveless
Brookings Institution
December 2007

This report deserves your attention--and at 27 pages is thoroughly manageable, even at a busy time of year. Loveless and company tackle three "puzzles," i.e., "phenomena in education that, at first blush, do not make sense." And on two of these they shed valuable light. In part II, they examine the paradox that finds Americans prizing private schools even as private high-school enrollments stagnate. Their findings include financial considerations, yes, but also broader cultural and social forces. In part III, they look into the seemingly contradictory international evidence on "time and learning" and conclude that yes, more minutes of instruction per day (and more homework) do have a salubrious relationship with student achievement, at least in math. Where the study is more exasperating--insightful but also wrong-headed--is in its comments on NAEP. The valuable insights concern the thinness of mathematical content in NAEP's math frameworks and exams, and how NAEP's governing board and bevies of experts have seemingly compensated by setting lofty targets that students must hit on those exams to be deemed "proficient." Where the analysis slides off track is in its assertion that NAEP's proficient level is too high. Loveless invokes Gary Phillips's recent linking of NAEP and TIMSS results (in math and science only) to conclude that, because fewer than 100 percent of youngsters in places like Singapore are achieving at that level, it's nonsense to set it as the target for American pupils. Here the problem isn't NAEP or its achievement levels; it's NCLB and its foolish aspiration to 100 proficiency. Indeed, no matter how low one sets one's cut scores for proficiency, there will always be some kids who don't get there. The right question to ask is whether NAEP's "proficient" level, notably higher than those of most states, is the right place for American schools to aim to bring as many of their pupils as possible. Think what a different country this would be if, say, two-thirds of our kids were "NAEP-proficient" (like, say, Singapore) instead of today's one third. You may not agree. But you should read Loveless and think deeply, as he has done. Find it here.

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