I suppose it's supposed to be good news that average math scores nudged up a bit during the last year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or “NAEP” test that's sometimes referred to as the nation's score card. Yet it's hard to break open the champagne over such a modest improvement when the system is failing so many.

As Washington Post education blogger, Valerie Strauss, put it: “Someone should be printing up a T-shirt about now that says: 'My nation spent billions on testing and all I got was a 1-point gain.'”

These test results tell us that tweaking the status quo, and loads of additional testing and spending, isn't having much of an effect on educational outcomes. That's important information to have, though I caution that I don't think test scores should be the only measure of education reform. Students need to learn basic skills, like the math and reading skills assessed on a test like NAEP. But test scores leave out a lot of the story about what schools achieve, such as whether kids are developing an interest in learning itself and the challenges they have to overcome to learn basic skills.

However, those who dismiss standard test results entirely are as wrong-headed as those who focus on them as the sole goal of education reform. Any education reform plan that's working should help lifted students' performance on these core subjects.

The key to real education improvement begins though with recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to helping kids learn. As any parent can tell you, some kids are ready for some subjects before others, and some respond to one type of instruction, while others don't. 

Debates about what curriculum or school-strategy work best are really “which is better apples or oranges?” questions. There's no reason that we should have to agree: Some are going to prefer apples, while others prefer oranges. What we need to encourage is an education arena that creates options for parents so that we can identify the learning strategies that work best for each unique student.