"Failing" or "Succeeding" Schools: How Can We Tell?

Paul E. Barton
American Federation of Teachers
September 2006

In this short paper, Paul Barton complains that No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) current system of testing does not achieve the law's overriding purpose--evaluating school performance. According to Barton, "evaluating school performance with standardized tests requires measuring what students learned in the school during the year of instruction--a quite different matter from measuring the sum total of what students know and can do at a point in time." He urges tests that accurately capture what students learn over time; are aligned to content standards and instruction; and generate results that are transparent and easily understood by students and teachers, among others. Ideally, such tests would be administered at the beginning and end of the school year, and the results would be used to set growth targets for subsequent years. A good idea, though Barton may be too harsh on NCLB's current "cut-point" approach, which establishes a level of proficiency that all students should meet and identifies those who are not yet at that level. Identifying progress is good, but one must also know how far below grade level individual students are--and thanks to NCLB's disaggregated data, America's achievement gaps have been illumined. An optimal system would combine growth models with NCLB's focus on hitting identifiable marks of academic proficiency. (Barton acknowledges that the pilot growth model projects in Tennessee and North Carolina do this.) The report is a valuable contribution to the debate over NCLB's reauthorization. Read it here.