When you imagine the ideal classroom, you probably see sun streams through large windows, lighting up the kids sitting at tables, busy illustrating story books that they created. The classroom hums, and a teacher moves from one raised hand to the next. But though you know the class you want for your child, quality is subjective, even in an era of school accountability.

"No Child Left Behind doesn’t evaluate the quality of schools,” argues William Mathis, Superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, VT, instead, “it evaluates the socio-economic status of schools.” Mathis and others in the field of education say that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the No Child Left Behind marker of a school’s success based on student test scores, isn’t a mark of school quality. “Tests are an easy way to evaluate anything,” says Teri Battaglieri, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, in East Lansing, MI, “but there are a lot of problems with high-stakes testing.” Some of those problems include the fact that test scores are absolute, they don’t measure growth, and there are a lot of outside factors that affect test scores. High test achievement doesn’t always indicate quality, says Barbara Radner, executive director for the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, “because there is such a correlation between income level and achievement.”

Even if No Child Left Behind doesn’t provide all the answers, however, it does provide a place to start, as you decide where your child should be when the first bell rings.

Get the Data

Learn the basics about your child’s school at the National Center for Education Statistics with the school search tool for basic demographics or the Public School Search feature that includes student-to-teacher ratios and enrollment by grade, gender, and race.

School Data Direct from the U.S. Department of Education searches school testing data and compares individual schools with district and state test averages. Or, use our School Finder to search schools for Adequate Yearly Progress, teacher credentials, and school ratings on everything from curriculum and facilities to accommodation of special needs and gifted students.

These sites will give you an overview of the hard data. They won’t answer questions about whether or not the school fits your child. For those answers, it’s time for a school visit.

The School Visit

  • The Office. Your first impression of a school should be one of orderliness and organization. Ask for information about school policy and procedures.
  • School Environment. “A more stable school environment is better for kids,” says Battaglieri, “if teachers are transferring regularly, there’s a problem.” However, if there’s a new principal, some turnover might be a good thing, says Radner, if they’re shaking things up.
  • The Classroom. Classrooms should be welcoming and organized, with student work, not prefab posters, on display. When it comes to class size, there’s no magic number, but smaller is better. 
  • Student Assessment. Tests shouldn’t be the only way that the teachers measure student success, look for student portfolios and teacher evaluations as well. If a school’s test scores are high, delve deeper. What is that school doing to keep the scores high?
  • Extracurriculars. “A focus on the arts is very good in terms of reading comprehension,” says Battaglieri. Make sure that they offer lots of extracurricular classes that fit your child’s interests.
  • Individual Instruction. Information about programs for kids with special needs, or who are gifted, will give you an idea of how well the school meets individual student needs.
  • Teacher Quality.“The classroom teacher is the absolute determinant of what happens for your kids in a year,” says Radner. How does the school handle professional development for teachers? And are any of their teachers National Board Certified? If they do have certified teachers, says Radner, “it shows that the school is attracting and keeping good teachers.”

Regardless of test scores and board certification, the number one way to determine whether a school will work for your child is how you feel when you visit. Think back to when you were a student: would you want to go to school here?