An ambivalent farewell to No Child Left Behind

Nearly everyone from the White House to conservative Republicans to teachers’ unions has been celebrating the new federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

At long last No Child Left Behind is being left behind.

The simplified version is that ESSA reverses federal education policy by leaving it to the states to set standards, adopt curriculum and design systems for holding schools accountable and turning around low-performing schools. As if the states weren’t already doing most of that.

Yes, the U.S. Department of Education created leverage for certain accountability and teacher evaluation schemes when it began approving waivers because states could no longer comply with NCLB. But the real education action has always been in the Statehouse, not the Capitol.

No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2002, required annual testing and determinations of whether schools were approaching the goal of 100 percent proficiency. But it wasn’t the testing that made the law unpopular; it was the conditions that states attached. High stakes led to tense debates over test prep, accountability and who was really looking out for children.

Here in Indiana, the big changes in education policy – vouchers, charter school expansion, A-to-F grades for schools, a third-grade retention test, mandatory teacher evaluations, limits on collective bargaining – were pushed through the legislature by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the advocacy group now called Hoosiers for Quality Education.

None of those are likely to be rolled back any time soon.

No Child Left Behind promised to ensure that poor kids, children of color, English language learners and special-needs students would no longer be left behind. The law was meant to discard the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s truly beautiful and inspiring phrase.

But the requirement that schools raise the test scores of disaggregated groups of students never packed much punch. Schools that didn’t meet targets were declared to have not made “adequate yearly progress,” but failure carried consequences only for schools that got federal Title I dollars.

Non-Title I schools with few poor students weren’t affected. And schools had to report scores of black, Hispanic, special-needs and ELL students only if they had a set number. Many affluent schools were exempt.

AYP went away when the feds started waiving the law’s requirements in 2012. Schools were still required to make public their average test scores for groups of students so the public could monitor achievement gaps. Fortunately, that requirement remains under ESSA.

But has anyone paid attention? Not that I can tell.

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