The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education


This edition of the Brown Center Report marks the tenth issue of the series
and the final issue of Volume II. The publication began in 2000 with Bill
Clinton in the White House and the Bush-Gore presidential campaign
building toward its dramatic conclusion. That first report was organized in
a three-part structure that all subsequent Brown Center Reports followed.
Part I presents the latest results from state, national, or international assessments
and alerts readers to important trends in the data. Part II explores an
education issue in depth, sometimes by investigating different sources of
empirical evidence than previous research, sometimes by posing a conventional
question in an unconventional way. Part III analyzes a current or
impending question regarding education policy. In all three sections, the
studies strive to ask clear questions, gather the best available evidence, and
present findings in a nonpartisan, jargon-free manner.

Part I of this year’s Brown Center Report focuses on international assessments.
The latest data from the Programme for International Student
Assessment (PISA) were released in December 2010. The performance of
the United States was mediocre, and although notching gains in all three
subjects, the country scored near the international average in reading
literacy and scientific literacy and below average in mathematical literacy.
The term “literacy” is a signal that PISA covers different content than most
achievement tests, and, indeed, assesses different skills than are emphasized
in the school curriculum. As the 2006 PISA Framework states, the
knowledge and skills tested on PISA “are defined not primarily in terms of
a common denominator of national school curricula but in terms of what
skills are deemed to be essential for future life.”

Two myths of international assessments are debunked—the first, that the
United States once led the world on international tests of achievement. It
never has. The second myth is that Finland leads the world in education,
with China and India coming on fast. Finland has a superb school system,
but, significantly, it scores at the very top only on PISA, not on other international
assessments. Finland also has a national curriculum more in sync
with a “literacy” thrust, making PISA a friendly judge in comparing Finnish
students with students from other countries. And what about India and
China? Neither country has ever participated in an international assessment.
How they would fare is unknown.

Part II of the report looks at state test scores on the National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) in light of the recent Race to the Top
competition. The federal program encouraged states to apply for $4.35
billion in new money by promising to pursue a reform agenda backed
by the Obama administration. Twelve states (for this discussion, the
District of Columbia will be called a state) won the grants. But are the
states that won the grants the same states that have accomplished the
greatest gains in student learning? Not necessarily.

Who’s winning the real race to the top? Both short- and long-term gains on
NAEP are calculated with statistical controls for changes in the demographic
characteristics of each state’s students. Eight states—Florida, Maryland,
Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Hawaii, and
Pennsylvania—stand out for making superior gains. At the other end of
the distribution, Iowa, Nebraska, West Virginia, and Michigan stand out for
underperforming. Five of the eight impressive states won grants, but three did
not. And a few states won grants even though they are faring poorly in the
race to boost student achievement. Some of the reasons why a program called
Race to the Top could distribute grant money in this manner are discussed.

Part III looks at NAEP. In June 2010, the Common Core State Standards
Initiative released grade-by-grade standards for reading and mathematics.
Two consortia were awarded $330 million to write tests aligned to the standards,
and a total of 46 states have signed to at least one group. As the only
assessment administered to representative samples of American students,
NAEP has called itself “the Nation’s Report Card” for decades.

How well does NAEP match up with the Common Core? We examined
171 public release items from the eighth-grade NAEP math test and coded
them based on the grade level the Common Core recommends that the
content be taught. The items registered, on average, two to three years
below the eighth-grade mathematics recommended by the Common
Core. More than 90 percent of the items from the “number” strand (content
area) cover material below the eighth grade. Almost 80 percent of the
items assessing “algebra” are, in fact, addressing content in the curriculum
that is taught before eighth grade. With Common Core assessments on
tap to begin in the 2014–2015 school year, policymakers and analysts
alike need to start thinking now about how NAEP and the Common Core
assessments can be reconciled so as to inform, not to confuse, the public
about student achievement.

An overarching theme of this year’s report is that events in the field of
education are not always as they appear to be—and especially so with test
scores. Whether commentators perpetrating myths of international testing,
states winning races while evidencing only mediocre progress, or an eighthgrade
test dominated by content below the eighth grade, the story is rarely
as simple as it appears on first blush. This report tried to dig beneath the
surface and uncover some of the complexities of these important issues.