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Leaving No Child behind, advocates celebrate Obama's signing of Every Student Succeeds Act

Lily Eskelsen García is president of the National Education Association, and Cornell Williams Brooks is president and CEO of the NAACP.

With today's signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act by President Obama, the pair discuss the significance of the end of No Child Left Behind and their hopes for the new law.

By Lily Eskelsen García and Cornell Williams Brooks

Good things come to those who wait, the saying goes. After more than a decade of false starts, Congress has passed a law that may very well deliver what the nation’s students, especially the most underserved, need and deserve—equal opportunity to a high-quality education regardless of their zip code. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, finally chose to put students ahead of partisan politics and replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the successor to the Early and Secondary Education Act.

On our part, it took a herculean effort to get Congress to rewrite the failed law. When enacted 50 years ago, it was clear that under ESEA, educational opportunities for Black and poor children were abysmal and unequal to what white students received in wealthier, well-resourced school districts. Five decades later, those gaps persist—despite the NCLB’s promise to level the playing field for the nation’s most vulnerable students. While the nation’s new education law won’t be a panacea for what ails America’s students and schools, there is no doubt that ESSA represents an important step forward in ushering in a new era for public education—namely providing every student the opportunity, support, tools, and time to learn.

ESSA will work to provide more opportunity for all students, including for the first time, indicators of school success or student support to help identify and begin closing opportunity gaps.

Let’s begin with culturally biased high-stakes testing. Decoupling of high-stakes associated with standardized tests, ensuring that students have more time to learn and teachers have more time to teach, is what ESSA promises. And it’s what we urged Congress to do in the reauthorization. Previously, accountability hinged entirely on high stakes standardized test scores, a single number that has been used to determine whether students advance or graduate, or teachers keep their jobs.

The problem is, a single test score is like a blinking “check engine” light on the dashboard. It can tell us something’s wrong but not how to fix it. As parents and educators, we want to know which middle school students are succeeding in science, technology, engineering and math tracks that will land them in advanced high school courses, and ultimately get them into a university. These things can be measured. That’s why both the NEA and the NAACP have long opposed culturally and linguistically biased high-stakes testing.  ESSA will require the use of multiple measures of student success in elementary, middle, and high school—not just test scores.

Students, teachers and parents provided us with clear evidence of what biased-testing and over testing can do. Congress made crucial steps toward getting the job done.  We have a new education law, but our work on behalf of equity, opportunity and access for students doesn’t end here. There is still much at stake for our students and educators. We will continue to lift up the voices of the people who know the names of the students in their schools and classrooms and ensure that Congress keeps its promise under ESSA.

In the community and in the classroom, we will continue to encourage the future elected leaders, fashion designers, cardiologists and aerodynamic engineers, architects, nurses, school principals, doctors, and lawyers. Students can’t climb to these heights when accountability in our education system hinges on high-stakes and culturally biased standardized test scores, not cultivating intellectual opportunity—the real measure of education.

Success, boundless opportunities and the American Dream are waiting for our students. With a quality education—their civil right—students can achieve it. The promise of educational opportunities for all students, especially the nation’s most vulnerable ones, will be theirs.  Together, we will keep pushing because our students matter.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.