Paul Teske is Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.
(These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system).
The Brown Center report on American Education 2010 from Brookings was released in February, with some very interesting new data and analysis by Tom Loveless, probably America’s top scholar of mathematics scores.
First, Loveless examines comparative international test results, and shows that the relative performance of American students has actually improved over the years. Comparing recent tests with those first given in 1964, seven years after Sputnik, at a time when many baby boomers were educated, Loveless shows that American students never scored very well (debunking the myth of some past American dominance here) and that our students have actually gotten somewhat better over time, compared to other countries.
He also shows that the much admired Finland actually only scores well on one particular type of test, and notes that Chinese and Indian students have yet to take most of these tests, so their supposed rising “dominance” is largely myth, at least in terms of what we know from these tests.
It is always fascinating to me to hear how many people implicitly believe in a past “Golden Age” of American education, when we were world-wide #1 and our systems were so much better than now. In addition to the data in this report, that idea is debunked very impressively, in a nice short read, in Richard Rothstein’s 1998 book “The Way We Were?”
One should retain the usual concerns of course – our system today has lots of problems, we need to do much better, especially with low income students – but this suggests that the idea of American performance decline over time is not as true as people, especially reformers, seem to believe – indeed, it may not be true at all.
Brookings also examines aggregate state-by-state NAEP performance, with two econometric models – one that looks at 2009 NAEP scores compared to how the state did on NAEP in the 1980s or 1990s, when NAEP was spreading across the American states, and another that looks at relative state performance in the recent period of 2003-2009.
While the focus is whether the right states won “Race to the Top” (some did, some didn’t), EdNews readers will be interested to see that Colorado ranks 18th of the 50 state on long-term performance improvement, but only 30th for the period 2003-9, with an actual decline in scores in the past six years, when adjusted for the demographics of students.
Finally, Brookings compared NAEP test items with the proposed common core standards, and finds that the NAEP questions are not well aligned and are actually too easy, compared to the standards. Loveless suggests that this lack of alignment will further confuse Americans about performance, going forward.
The report itself summarizes the overall findings:
“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 eighth grade 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.”
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