It's still tough to get a handle on just what the children are learning, if anything at all. A recent study done by the Center for Education Policy and reported on by the NY Times brings that all back to mind with this conclusion.
Merely collecting the test data from 50 states proved to be a complex and frustrating task because many states’ education departments are overworked and their test archives are flawed by missing or inconsistent data, the report said. “The house of data on which N.C.L.B. is built is at times a rickety structure,” it said.Here's the actual report. (It's not downloading for me currently.)
My own experience with Tennessee is a good example. Not only have tests changed over time, but also the way the information is reported to the public. Take a look yourself. I know it's a lot of data and I know it's a huge undertaking just to get it on the web, but your average parent or taxpayer will have a good bit of trouble following along. That's why tools like the Schools Performance Charts from the Education-Consumers Clearinghouse are valuable. It's why groups like Save Our Schools with their local focus are necessary. We're all quite busy. Few of us are statisticians. It's almost as if the system is designed to obfuscate. I'm among the first to encourage folks to go to the source documents and not just trust information filters. But sometimes the information is so massive, collecting is such a full time job and sifting through it so enormous that none of us can afford to do it and so we've no choice but to rely on others.
But as long as parents are not direct consumers of their children's education we'll have these imperfect accountability tools to deal with.