The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?


Few education analysts are as
knowledgeable and provocative as the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless, and
many denizens of the policy sphere look forward to his annual Brown Center Report on American Education.
This year’s edition is no disappointment. As in earlier years, it tackles three
big topics and manages to be provocative—and out of the mainstream—on all

But it’s real easy to misinterpret
its message and misconstrue its policy implications.

Topic I has been read as saying
that “the
Common Core standards won’t raise student achievement
.” Of course they won’t,
not all by themselves. Standards merely describe the desired destination of the
education journey; they don’t get us there. As Kathleen Porter-Magee has
carefully pointed out
on Fordham’s Common Core Watch blog, to achieve their
potential, these standards must be well and fully implemented and joined to
quality assessments, accountability systems, and much more. It’s possible to
have good standards and low achievement (look at California and D.C.) and it’s
possible to have weak standards and pretty good achievement (Connecticut and
Vermont are good examples on this front). But,
other things being equal, it’s far better to set a destination worth reaching
than to embark on a random journey, and it’s far more helpful to those who will
do the curriculum-building, the assessment-creating, and the classroom-instructing.

Topic II basically explains why
achievement, and achievement gaps, are not the same on two different versions
of NAEP, one of which is anchored to past curricular norms (the “long-term
trend” assessment) and the other of which (“main NAEP”) is periodically
refreshed to keep pace with current thinking about curriculum and pedagogy. As
Loveless notes, “they may both be right.” But one should draw scant comfort
from the fact that sundry achievement gaps are wider on “main NAEP” than on the
long-term trend report. If—and in my
mind it’s a sizable if—main NAEP truly reflects the knowledge and skills of
greatest salience and value in today’s world, then those are what poor and
minority kids also need to learn.

Standards merely describe the desired destination of the
education journey.

Topic III explores a favorite
Loveless topic, namely the uses and abuses of international test scores. He
correctly observes that the media often exaggerate the weakness of American
students by using the international score rankings in a misleading way and
that, for a variety of important statistical reasons, scores that appear to be
different may not actually be. Mostly, though, he objects to efforts—by many,
beginning with the OECD itself—to devise causal explanations and extract policy
guidance from such rankings. As Loveless irrefutably observes, “pointing to a
single high-scoring country, or group of them, and declaring that one or more
of their policies should be adopted by other countries is misguided. It
combines the errors of making dubious causal claims and misusing rankings, and
by ignoring evidence from low or average countries in the same policy question,
produces a triple error, a true whopper in misinterpreting international test

Tom Loveless, The 2012 Brown Center Report on American
Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?
(Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, February 2012.)

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