Better Tests for NCLB

As a rule, many liberals aren’t thrilled with the high-stakes testing component of the No Child Left Behind act. But it seems obvious that if you are going to have high-stakes testing, in which the fate of the school hangs in the balance, they should be “value-added tests”—which measure how much a student has learned in a given year, no matter what level he or she starts at—rather than expecting all students in all districts to meet the exact same standards, as is currently done. On the most basic level, “value-added” tests would reward schools for making progress with students, rather than punish those schools that do a good job but can’t get disadvantaged students to accelerate three grade levels in a single year, as NCLB can do. It would also give schools incentive to focus on all students; the way the NCLB tests are currently structured, teachers have incentive to concentrate primarily on those students just below the cutoff, so that they can pass the damn test and save the school. Switching to “value-added” tests makes sense in all sorts of ways.

At any rate, Thomas Toch agrees, reporting that the Dallas school system had a fair amount of success with such tests, before NCLB came along. Usefully, though, Toch also points out some of the reasons why this “obvious” solution hasn’t yet been implemented. First, schools lack the proper statistical equipment, although that can be solved easily. And second, some parents don’t like to hear that their students are held to a lower standard than those in some other district.

There’s an argument for replacing the adequate yearly progress method mandated by NCLB with value-added. But the political obstacles to doing so would be considerable. The idea that there should be one standard for all students, regardless of race or income, and that all schools should be held responsible for meeting those standards, is the gravity that holds the liberal and conservative sides of the school reform movement together. Moreover, setting that single standard for all students does seem to have the effect of lifting the aspirations of parents, students, and teachers in many low-income schools, and sparking a sense of panic that is not unhelpful given the dismal performance of many of these schools. Dropping the standards approach entirely makes no sense politically or policy-wise.

One solution might be to publish scores from both the standards-based and value-added methods but to tie rewards and sanctions only to the latter. Another would be to combine the two ratings strategies. That’s what Dallas has done in recent years, Tennessee wants to do, and value-added advocates like Sandy Kress support.

So it’s not impossible. The current Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, has promised to consider changes to the assessment criteria in NCLB. As modest changes go, this seems like one of the more sensible ones.