When No Child Left Behind was written 11 years ago, standardized tests were the only way to consistently measure student learning on a large scale. But since then, many states have developed sophisticated data systems that can calculate the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college, enlist in the armed services and land steady, well-paying jobs. Instead of using proxy measures for successful preparation (i.e. test scores) we can use measures of the real thing. If high school graduates need to take remedial courses in college, for example, that means their high school didn’t do its job. These measures can augment test scores to provide a richer, more accurate portrait of school success.
We should also move away from simplistic, rules-based systems for identifying and fixing low-performing schools. No Child Left Behind used crude measures to identify failure and prescribed interventions that haven’t worked very well. School evaluation is complicated and should be based substantially on expert human judgment. In Great Britain, highly trained school inspectors consider many kinds of information, including standardized test scores, to rate schools. But they also conduct site visits, observe classrooms and interview teachers and students. Then they make a comprehensive judgment about whether a school needs to be overhauled.
Objective test score information should remain part of school evaluation. Most parents wouldn't sit lightly if their child flunked basic tests in reading and math. Society should be similarly alarmed when whole schools full of students fail tests -- a tragedy that remains all too common, even after a decade of No Child Left Behind. But we now have the opportunity to broaden the scope of information used to rate schools, and rely more heavily on trained evaluators to interpret that information. When Congress writes the next version of No Child Left Behind, it should move in this direction.