The 2004 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

Tom Loveless
A headshot of Tom Loveless.
Tom Loveless Former Brookings Expert

November 1, 2004

This is the fifth annual edition of the Brown Center Report on American Education. It analyzes the difficulty of items on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), examines the content training of middle school math teachers, and evaluates the Blue Ribbon Schools Program. The NAEP assesses student performance and periodically issues what is known as the Nation’s Report Card. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all teachers demonstrate mastery of the curriculum that they teach. The Blue Ribbon Schools Program singles out highly successful schools for national recognition. Measuring what students know, staffing classrooms with competent teachers, rewarding excellence—these are all activities of profound importance to the vitality of the nation’s schools.

Most federal—including No Child Left Behind—honor federalism by leaving important powers in the hands of state and local officials. But final authority over NAEP and over Blue Ribbon Schools is held by officials in Washington, DC. They are truly federal government programs. And they are well-established. NAEP testing began in 1969. The Blue Ribbon Schools Program started in 1982. These programs have a track record.

The NAEP has publicly released more than 500 items from its mathematics tests. In the first section of this report, after reviewing test data released in 2004, we analyze a sample of NAEP items and discover that the mathematics required to solve many of the problems is extraordinarily easy. Most of the arithmetic one would need to know to solve the average item on the eighth grade NAEP is taught by the end of third grade. The second section of the report presents a survey of middle school math teachers, focusing on their educational background and professional development. A significant number of math teachers at this level lack formal undergraduate training in mathematics, and the professional development they are receiving appears to be inadequate to remedy the problem. The third section of the report examines the Blue Ribbon Schools Program. We replicate a study published in the first Brown Center Report, analyzing test data from schools that have won Blue Ribbons. In 2000, we found that at least one-fourth of the winning schools did not deserve to win the award, at least based on state test scores in reading and math. In this year’s study, we find that the Blue Ribbon program today makes fewer errors. There is still room for improvement, but far fewer failing schools are receiving the awards.

A personal note. For eight years, Diane Ravitch has edited the Brookings Papers on Education Policy and organized the Brown Center’s annual conference. Diane is now going to step down from those duties to spend more time on her own scholarship. She will maintain her non-resident senior fellow position at Brookings. The papers from the 2004 conference, featuring papers on eight great ideas in education, will be published early in 2005. Diane is our nation’s leading education historian, and her penetrating analysis of contemporary educational problems is a national treasure. We at the Brown Center have been very fortunate to have worked with her—and look forward to working with her on future endeavors.

The Nation’s Achievement/NAEP Math Items

The Content Training of Middle School Math Teachers

Blue Ribbon Schools Revisited

View the Powerpoint Presentation from the 2004 Brown Center Report Event