The 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well are American Students Learning?

Tom Loveless
The Brookings Institution
February 2009

This slightly tardy report offers a trio of unrelated but highly engaging--indeed downright provocative--studies. First up is PISA, and whether using it as a model for national or state benchmarking efforts is a good idea. (More on this in a bit.) Second, Loveless looks at the 1990s' aggressive push to get more kids into eighth grade algebra (enrollment has nearly doubled since 1990) and the deleterious effects of doing so. (The Brown Center already released this part back in September.) Finally, Loveless contemplates the performance of city school districts compared with other districts in the same states and finds--encouragingly--that 29 of 35 city districts narrowed the gap between their test scores and state averages from 2000 to 2007 (New Orleans posted the biggest gains). But it's the PISA study that should warrant the most attention, since NGA and other national groups have viewed that test as the holy grail of international standards and assessment*. Loveless presents a stinging indictment of PISA's political correctness and manipulative approach to student attitudes--wholly inappropriate for a test of science. This is because PISA asks lots of questions about self-efficacy in science, as opposed to science content itself. While PISA finds the correlation between the two positive, Loveless finds otherwise--the more confident its kids are in their science abilities, the lower that nation's scores. But who cares? This isn't a test of confidence. It's supposed to be about what 15 year olds know about math and science, not what they think they know. Loveless explains: "The danger is acute in PISA because the attitudinal questions elicit students' beliefs about issues, not their knowledge of issues...[and] history teaches us that beliefs untethered from knowledge can make for some rather unscientific decision making." Indeed. Let's hope those interested in PISA as an international benchmark clean the smudges off those rose-colored glasses. You can find all three reports here.

*The NGA has asked us to clarify that it doesn't view PISA as the "holy grail of international standards and assessments." PISA was mentioned in its recent benchmarking report as one of several international exams that states might look toward when developing more rigorous, and more common, standards and internationally benchmarked assessments. (Corrected on February 27, 2009)

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