I have the same sort of ambivalence on evaluating school performance as I do regarding church performance. A “by the numbers” approach keeps people from (successfully) making excuses, but it may not measure what you actually want to measure.
In the case of schools, as I see it, the problem is that education is not simply passing on a body of facts or procedures to students. If you do just that, you may make somebody functional in low-end jobs, but they won’t push beyond that. At the same time, if a school does not pass on a body of facts it cannot be successful either. Facts, initiative, thinking, understanding, enthusiasm, function, art, and so forth, all describe some of the desirable results of education. And only a small portion of that is measurable through testing.
Thus I was fascinated to read Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools is Wrong by Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones. Rizga has committed an act of journalism, something that is very rare in our media. She spent time actually learning what was going on in a school. Is everything she says going to point in the right direction? Not necessarily. But it does point out some of the problems of standardized testing as the sole measure of school (and student) performance.
I’m not sure how we accomplish it, but somehow we need both high expectations and ample scope for creativity in the classroom. What will make that happen? I’m not sure. But the current system isn’t really doing it. We need measures of success if we’re going to spend public money, but at the same time, we need those measures to function properly, and I don’t think we’ve succeeded in making them work even marginally.
There’s definitely more to it than just stuffing our kids’ heads with certain facts … but there can’t be less.