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The Brookings Institution was once known as a reliable source of thoughtful, informed analysis of important policy issues. In the past decade, it has turned its education commentary over to rightwing ideologues, who are driven by ideology and indifferent to facts that they ought to know.
On behalf of Brookings, Jonathan Rothwell, economist for Gallup, complains that the U.S. spends more on education, has seen no improvement in decades, and is seeing no gains in productivity. He ends by saying that low-income families can’t afford private tutors or home schooling, as though these were viable ways to improve education for the poorest children .
I can’t unpack all this in a short space, but I would like to show you in a few paragraphs why this is an uninformed article. To begin with, Rothwell cherrypicks the data on test scores. This makes his analysis misleading and wrong. Test scores are the highest they have ever been on the only longitudinal measure we have: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He selectively quotes one version of the NAEP, while ignoring the other.
There are actually two versions of NAEP. One is called the “Long Term Trend” (LTT) data, the other is main NAEP. The LTT is offered every four years to samples of students at age 9, 13, and 17. Main NAEP is given every other year to students in grades 4 and 8.
LTT contains questions that are unchanged since the early 1970s and have no relation to what students are taught today. Occasionally, questions are deleted because their content is obsolete (e.g., a question that refers to S&H Green Stamps). The data for 17-year-olds is especially dubious because this group has no incentive to take the NAEP tests seriously.
The National Assessment Governing Board is aware of the problem of low motivation among 17-year-olds. When I served on the board, from 1994-2001, we devoted a large part of one of our quarterly meetings to this problem. There was talk of incentives, pizza parties, cash, but it was not resolved. The bottom line, however, is that any data about the test scores of 17-year-olds must acknowledge that this group doesn’t care about the test because they know it doesn’t matter. What the board learned when we discussed it is that some 17-year-olds doodle on the answer sheet or answer every question by checking the same letter. They don’t care.
I recommend that Rothwell read Chapter 5 of my book Reign of Error. He would learn there that the scores on the main NAEP reached their highest point ever in 2013 (they were flat for the first time in many years in 2015). This was true for every group of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. He would also learn that the graduation rate was the highest ever for these groups, and the dropout rate was the lowest ever. He would see a different reading of the LTT data, showing a dramatic rise in test scores in math for black students and Hispanic students in all three age groups, and for white students at ages 9 and 13, from 1973 to 2008. Even white 17-year-olds saw a gain, but it was small.
If I may quote my analysis, based on a review of both versions of NAEP, “NAEP data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the past two decades: slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics.”
I would also urge Rothwell to read chapter 7, which reviews the international test scores. It shows that we were never #1 in test scores on international tests. In fact, when the first international tests were given in 1964, we were last among 12 nations. Yet over the half century that followed, we outpaced all the other 11 nations by every measure.
I know that Brookings uses Google or some other search engine to find anything that quotes its articles and research. I hope that they find this article and bring it to the attention of Jonathan Rothwell.
More important, I can only hope and wish that Brookings would make the effort to employ genuine education researchers to write and declaim about this important subject. Over the past decade, its education spokesman was Grover Whitehurst, George W. Bush’s former research director, who turned Brookings into a cheerleading think tank for school choice. This is unworthy of a once-great and once-trusted institution.