What “No Child Left Behind” Got Right: Measurement Matters

With “No Child Left Behind” now left behind, succeeded by the Every Student Succeeds Act, Ben Casselman writes of a key NCLB success.  Casselman, FiveThirtyEight’s chief economics writer, says,

…No Child Left Behind had at least one significant — and, experts say, lasting — success: It changed the way the American educational system collects and uses data. The law may not have achieved the promise of its title, but it did force schools across the country to figure out which students were being left behind, and to make that information public. Education experts argue that the law’s true legacy is the way it laid bare the inequities in the American educational system, and forced districts, in some cases for the first time, to address them.

As we wrote yesterday, the Student Achievement Council reports more rapid improvement in educational attainment is required if the state is to meet its objectives. The SAC analysis is data-driven. As Casselman writes, the ability to develop strategies to improvement student achievement begins with research, with measurement. It was a fraught journey.

When No Child Left Behind was signed in 2002, most states didn’t have the ability to track individual students from one year to the next. So instead, the law required schools to compare test results for whole classes across years — how this year’s eighth graders compare to last year’s, for example, even though each year’s students have their own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Today, states have improved their capacity to track students from year to year — the result, education experts said, of investments states made in part because of No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on data. The improved data makes it possible to see how students’ performance changes over time. That has given rise to new “value-added” models for evaluating schools and teachers, a controversial approach but one that has gotten high marks from researchers.

In our foundation report, we wrote approvingly of measurement and accountability.

Washington must take steps to ensure that the very best teachers are in every classroom, every day. The state can meet that challenge by continuing to assess teacher performance, providing opportunities for current teachers to enhance their skills, making assessment of student outcomes a factor in personnel evaluation, and ensuring principals have authority to hire the best teachers….

Washington must also continue to make gains in student achievement by closing achievement gaps between groups of students and raising the high school graduation rate. These efforts will ensure every student is prepared for life-long career success in a dynamic economy, capable of fully realizing the abundant opportunities for rewarding civic, community, and workplace achievement.

As the nation and state move to the stage of education reform, the data gathering spurred by NCLB will continue to influence educators, Casselman reports

Even as Congress abandoned many of the law’s provisions, it kept in place the requirement that districts report test results for individual groups. It will be up to interest groups and parents to use that data to push for change, said Lorraine McDonnell, a University of California, Santa Barbara, political scientist who recently published an article on the history of federal testing requirements.

Measurement matters.