The 2002 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

Tom Loveless

As in the past, the report is divided into three independent sections. The first section reports on current trends in test scores in reading and mathematics. Arithmetic receives special consideration. A troubling body of evidence is presented that suggests students’ computation skills have stagnated or even declined in recent years. Remarkably, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card, does not report how well elementary grade students are performing in arithmetic.

The second section of the report revisits last year’s study of high school culture. First, we replicate the 2001 survey of foreign exchange students with American students who have studied in high schools abroad, asking them also to compare U.S. high schools to high schools around the world. By compelling margins, American and foreign students agree that success at sports means much more to U.S. teenagers than to teens in other countries. Is this cause for concern? Does it interfere with the nation’s efforts to raise academic achievement?

If holding athletic accomplishments in high esteem creates problems, one would expect them to surface in high schools with highly successful athletic teams. We present a study of high schools that are sports powerhouses, schools that in recent years have been the best in the nation in football, baseball, and basketball. It is clear that these schools are excellent at sports. What about academics? Is dominance in team sports attained at a cost to excellence in reading and mathematics? After analyzing test score data from dozens of states, Brown Center researchers are confident that the answer is no, excellence is not zero sum when it comes to sports and academics. There is no evidence that schools suffer academically when they excel in athletics. On state tests, the sports powerhouses score about as one would expect, no better or worse than non-powerhouse schools serving similar populations. And there is evidence, though only suggestive, that some schools are capable of making excellence at sports and excellence at academics mutually reinforcing.

The third section of the report looks at charter schools. Charters have proliferated across the country since the first few opened in Minnesota nearly a decade ago. There are now about 2,400 charters serving 250,000 students. Very little is known about academic achievement in charter schools, so we examined the test scores of charters from 1999 to 2001 in ten states. In a nutshell, charter schools performed about one-quarter standard deviation below comparable regular public schools on these three years of state tests. We do not know why charters performed at this level. They may have attracted students who were already low achieving, which explains why parents sought an alternative to the local public school. Thus, readers are cautioned that these test scores may or may not reflect the quality of education students have received and are receiving at charters. And we offer a few suggestions on how achievement in charters can be evaluated as fairly and accurately as possible in the future, especially with state accountability systems beginning to take hold.

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