In defense of No Child Left Behind

Just weeks after the U.S. House Republicans made a purely symbolic move to dismantle No Child Left Behind, the law that forces schools to report standardized test scores, standardized testing season hit our household.

By testing season I don't mean the time when kids actually take the tests — that was four months back. Rather, now that one school season is long gone, we start a new season with the progress report on how the old school year really went academically.

I say how the school year really went because with grades, you just never can tell. Teachers face pressure from parents, and sometimes principals, to give everyone A's and B's. Powerful parents can be particularly pushy. Since serious grading is a grind, and controversial to boot, you can hardly blame some teachers for watering down standards.

For all these reasons, an A in one school might be a C in another. Even for the same course in the same school, an A from Ms. Smith means something very different than an A from Mr. Jones.

But standardized tests are relatively impervious to preference or politics. They offer real snapshots of our kids' academic progress. Thanks to NCLB's reporting requirements, we get to see how our kids did compared to their peers all over the state, even the nation. In a mobile America, where they may end up working anywhere, the latter may be key.

Of course, there is something silly about having to wait four months to know how your kid did. No one would enjoy a football game if they had to wait months for the score. Surely we would do better if learning were as important as sports.

Even so, this is better than pre-NCLB. The fact is that in education, all too often the worst claim to be best and the best claim to be worst. Thoroughly ineffective teachers proclaim their own genius, even as world-class faculty focus on their flaws in a quest to get better.

Standardized testing, for all its limitations, gives us a real measure of how well teachers do their jobs — not how well they claim to do their jobs, how well they think they do their jobs, or how well the principal likes them.

As a researcher I always thought as much, and now as a parent I see it firsthand. Looking back at the teachers my children have had over the years, from both testimony and test scores, we see that one teacher loves reading but not math. Another teacher gave serious homework. Few students liked her, but her results were clear enough. Our youngest made two full years of progress in both reading and math in that class, getting far enough ahead to weather a slacker teacher or two down the road.

Our oldest hated his algebra teacher with a passion. She assigned too much homework to finish at school, sometimes a full half hour a night, which seriously cut into his video game time. (I mean, what kid would rather solve equations than crush creepers?) But the funny thing about work is, it works: Our son vaulted to the top few percent on his math standardized tests and started thinking about math in his off time. After the school year ended, he made us put the quadratic equation on his birthday cake — a great testament to great teaching.

Like most parents, we're glad to suffer a little whining about homework in exchange for a lot more learning. Contrary to fears about overworked adolescents, 67 percent of 17-year olds report less than an hour of homework a night, with younger students getting far less, as the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless documents in "Do Students Have Too Much Homework?"

In short, the standardized testing popularized by NCLB gives us parents a sense of how much our children learn, and how well their teachers teach. If that makes teachers focus a little more, and makes students study a little more, that's not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, for us nerds, it sounds like heaven.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He is a Baltimore native.