How Can We Learn from Success Without Some Way of Telling Who's Successful?

For a bit more than a decade American educators have had an unprecedented opportunity to find successful schools and learn from them.

That's because, as part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, students throughout the country have taken state tests in reading, math, and science with results reported by grade and student group. In reading and math, every student is tested annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and in science every student is tested once at each level -- elementary, middle, and high school -- for a total of 17 tests over 10 years.

I know that educators have been using the results because I have run into many in my work. For almost 11 years I, too, have been mining the information produced by state assessments to find high-performing schools serving large percentages of students of color and students living in low-income families -- I call them It's Being Done schools.

So, for example, when I went to Chadwick Elementary in Baltimore County, I found out that the school has been hosting educators from all over Maryland. Among other things, they are eager to see how the school makes sure that just about all their boys meet state reading standards with 89 percent exceeding them.

Similarly in Alabama, I have seen educators from all over the state who'd found it challenging to help all their African American students meet state standards consulting with the educators at George Hall Elementary in Mobile. George Hall is one of the top-performing schools in the state with a student population of African American students from low-income families. It hasn't been possible for educators to compare schools among states, because every state had its own test. But they could compare their school to others within their own states.

The reason this is so important is that education has always been a bit of a black box. Before the uniform administration of state assessments, even teachers and schools who were doing truly astounding work were often only known to their students and their students' parents. Those teachers might have shared what they were doing at a workshop, but other educators would have had no way of verifying how their students were doing.

When the federal government began requiring state standardized tests, the publicly reported results opened a little bit of a window into whether schools were succeeding, and many educators have been able to use the resulting reports as a valuable source of information, seeking out more successful schools to learn new ways of tackling old problems.

In other words, state assessments have provided a starting point for discussions among educators.

By the way, what I have found in the It's Being Done schools should be heartening to any serious educator. They are schools that value the knowledge and skill of teachers and structure the work to help teachers be successful. This in turn makes them really nice places to work. Teachers in these schools have told me over and again things like, "We are like family," and "We all care about each other." These are not drill-and-kill test-prep factories, but places where professional educators have taken responsibility for the learning and wellbeing of their students in ways that make sense to other educators. (Go here to learn more about them.)

And often the educators in It's Being Done schools have told me that when they have been stuck with a problem, they have looked around for another school more successful than they to consult with.

All of which is why I am alarmed at the national conversation that is going on now about whether to keep annual standardized tests and public reporting of the results.

It seems impossible that we could even think about going back to a time when there was no reliable way to tell which schools were doing a better job teaching math or reading. It would not only leave parents and community members in the dark; it would leave educators there as well.