No Child Left Behind Is Dead, So What Happens to Standardized Testing?

President Obama replaced the George W. Bush–era legislation with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with student Antonio Martin, who introduced him to sign the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Dec 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With the stroke of a pen, the era of No Child Left Behind—and what critics called a top-down, one-size-fits-all education policy—is over. On Thursday morning, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, effectively ending the unpopular, George W. Bush–era legislation that had, since 2002, helped make high-stakes standardized test scores a main focus of public K–12 education.

“I want this not just because it’s good for the students themselves, the communities involved, and it’s good for our economy, but because it really goes to the essence of what we are about as Americans,” Obama said at the White House signing ceremony. “There is nothing more essential to living up to the ideals of this nation than to make sure every child is able to live up to their God-given potential.”

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The new law passed through Congress with strong bipartisan support after being championed by national teachers unions and state legislators. In particular, it moves away from the use of federally mandated high-stakes testing as the key determinant of the quality of the nation’s 100,000 public schools and how well the 50 million kids in the country are learning. Many of those kids were taking more than a dozen standardized tests a year, leaving teachers with little option but to teach to the tests.

Standardized testing isn’t completely off the table with the new law—third through eighth graders will still be required to take annual exams in reading and math, and high school students will be required to test once. But that frequency is a far cry from what happened with the old law, which saw kindergarteners being required to take standardized tests.

“I heard from parents, teachers, and students how the overemphasis on testing and one-size-fits-all response has taken the focus off our kids’ learning,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. a coauthor of the legislation, told National Public Radio on Thursday.

Under the now-defunct law, a goal was set for 100 percent of public school students to reach the “proficient” benchmark on both reading and math standardized tests by 2014. Less than half of kids actually achieved the proficiency goal by 2014. Schools that failed to meet annual yearly progress benchmarks faced federally mandated sanctions that ranged from bussing kids to different schools and picking up the tab to firing entire school staffs.

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A 2014 analysis from the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, found that some students were taking “as many as 20 standardized assessments per year and an average of 10 tests in grades 3–8.” The authors of that report noted that the frequency of testing was a burden for students, families, and teachers. Moreover, the researchers wrote, “There is a culture of testing and test preparation in schools that does not put students first. While the actual time spent taking tests might be low, a culture has arisen in some states and districts that places a premium on testing over learning.”

The pursuit of high scores, according to the analysis, led schools to devote significant time to test prep. Some educators also resorted to fudging the numbers. A high-profile cheating scandal rocked Atlanta last year and resulted in the jailing of educators. Instead of evaluating kids solely by a score, the new law will allow for the use of multiple measures of student learning and progress—such as projects and presentations—to make school accountability decisions.

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However, not everyone is cheering the new law’s passage. “We are vehemently opposed to testing children each year in grades 3–8 and once in high school. We are the only nation that demands this of our children,” the prominent educator activist group The Badass Teachers Association wrote in a blog post on Dec. 1.

The legislation’s support of for-profit charter schools, alternative certification groups such as Teach for America, and an emphasis on personalized learning—which was championed last week by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative—were also raised as concerns by the activists.

For-profit charters are problematic, the activists wrote, because they “cherry pick students, have zero tolerance discipline policies, and counsel students out that don’t fit their profile.” Alternative certification programs, they wrote, “will only guarantee that our neediest children will get the least trained” educators.

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The term personalized learning could “be a vehicle for students to be placed in front of a computer screen all day or have them moved out of their public school to a school that is not housed in their community,” the activists wrote. “This school could be an online learning center and a charter school; both [of] which have been proven not to be beneficial to a child’s learning experience. Why should children have to move out of their community school to be educated?”

Under the new legislation, figuring out the answer to those questions will increasingly be the domain of states. “State governments need to step up and do their part to support the work of local school districts,” said Tom Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association.

How exactly the U.S. Department of Education will be a part of that process remains to be seen. “Now the hard work begins,” Obama told attendees at the ceremony. “Laws are only as good as the implementation.”