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Senate retires No Child Left Behind, adopts Every Student Succeeds. Obama will sign tomorrow.

Updated Wednesday after Senate votes 85 to 12 for Every Student Succeeds Act. Read the story here.

Goodbye No Child. Hello Every Student.

The U.S. Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act today, the successor to the controversial No Child Left Behind law that made testing the centerpiece of American public schools for 14 years.

"This is a victory for every child in Georgia," said Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. "This historic rewrite shows what can happen when lawmakers and educators work together to ensure the focus is on providing opportunity for all students."

Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods said, “While I would have preferred more time to review this legislation before it passed, I am pleased that with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress saw what we at the state and local levels have seen for years: we test way too much and the federal government has taken over education, which is a constitutional obligation of states and local districts. ..My team and I will look carefully at this new legislation and move forward with some of our already implemented actions to provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability. Now that the federal government has provided states with flexibility, we as a state must act in the interests of our students and teachers.”​

The Senate voted this morning 85 to 12 in favor of the bill, which passed the House last week in a 359 to 64 vote. The president is expected to sign the bill when it reaches his desk next week.

The White House says President Obama will sign the bill into law Thursday morning.

ESSA returns more control to states, although it does not boot the feds out of education entirely as some members of Congress wanted. Annual math and reading tests are still required in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, but the scores do not determine the sum total of a school’s worth. Instead, schools will be assessed on non academic factors including high school graduation rates and student and school supports such as access to higher level coursework, art, music and counselors.

No Child Left Behind has been roundly condemned as a test-and-punish approach that treated a single standardized test score as a full representation of a school's worth. Teachers and parents complained the law reduced learning to multiple choice questions. And eventually, policy makers agreed.

"Although well-intended, the No Child Left Behind Act -- the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- has long been broken. We can no longer afford that law’s one-size-fits-all approach, uneven standards, and low expectations for our educational system. That’s why, early on, President Obama and I joined educators and families calling on Congress to fix its flaws in this outdated law," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement about ESSA.

“No bill is perfect, but this is so much better than what educators have had to live under for the last 14 years," said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, in a phone call with reporters Monday. “Kids who graduated last year lived under No Child Left Untested their entire school careers from the time they were in kindergarten. Now, it will be a game changer for kids who deserve something better.”

There is widespread consensus that ESSA is better for schools and students than No Child Left Behind, which came about because the federal government was frustrated with sending millions of dollars to states that consistently produced poor results, especially for low-income and students with special needs. But the yoking of high-stakes testing with strict accountability did not foster more learning in many places; it just generated more testing and test prep. No Child dinged schools for the poor performance of even one subgroup of students. That led to thousands of schools earning a failing grade, even if most students were on target.

“Educators will have a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions that affect their students and classrooms,” said the GAE's Chapman. “This legislation begins to close the opportunity gaps for students by providing a new system that includes an ‘opportunity dashboard’ with indicators of school success and student support.  Not only does it reduce the amount of standardized testing in schools, but it decouples high-stakes decisions and statewide testing so students have more time to develop critical thinking while educators do what they love — inspire a lifelong love of learning.”

ESSA contains compromises, including some around teacher preparation programs and services for private school students that may prove controversial. It also puts a lot of faith in states to recognize problem schools and fix them. It was because states were not addressing educational inequities that No Child passed in the first place.

The law promotes charter schools, leading Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to say:

This is an exciting moment for the charter school movement. The National Alliance worked side-by-side with members of Congress and their staff to improve this law on behalf of students, educators and charter schools. We are extremely grateful to the members on both sides of the aisle who recognize that public education is strengthened by supporting the growth of high-quality charter public schools nationwide.

Noted teacher/blogger Peter Greene takes another view on his blog Curmudgucation, writing:

 The ESSA doesn't settle anything. It doesn't solve anything. Every argument and battle that supporters of public schools (and the teachers and students who work and learn in public schools) will still be fought-- the difference is that now those arguments will be held in state capitols instead of Washington DC. ..ESSA makes it possible to take many important steps forward. It also makes it possible for states to step backward. The steps that are taken will be decided state by state, and the same players who have worked hard to break down public education are still right there, still well-funded, still fully committed to the goals they have pursued for over a decade.

Writing on Brookings, Lawrence University professor Arnold F. Shober explained how ESSA garnered support from usually bickering factions:

ESSA’s cross-party appeal stems from broad-based anger at No Child Left Behind. That Act was heralded for its support of disadvantaged students using deliberate ties to policy research, but things did not work out that way. Teachers’ unions were angered that testing was increasingly used (or threatened) to evaluate teachers; state departments of education were eager to inflate performance; and conservatives threatened to rebel against federal mandates


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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.