After a controversial 13-year reign, the No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”) has come to an end.  Last Thursday, after a bipartisan vote of 85-12 the day before in the U.S. Senate, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”). ESSA, which is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (“ESEA”), still mandates statewide annual testing and reporting of student results by subgroup. But the new law also includes a number of significant changes, including efforts to limit the burden of student testing and reduce the role of the federal government in public education in favor of the states.

When signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002, NCLB set an ambitious goal of having 100 percent of students perform at grade level by the 2013-2014 school year. To measure progress along the way and to provide a vehicle by which to hold states and schools accountable for their students’ academic performance, NCLB required annual math and reading assessments for students in grades three through eight and one assessment for high school students. NCLB also required schools to report their assessment scores by subgroups, with the goal of closing the achievement gap for racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. Under NCLB, schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” for several consecutive years faced severe consequences such as reorganization and closure. This testing framework faced significant criticism, with many arguing that NCLB forced schools and teachers to “teach to the test” at the expense of holistic education including critical thinking, the arts, and the social sciences. 

Although the ESSA maintains much of the same testing and reporting framework of NCLB, it shifts a significant amount of responsibility from the federal government to the states. Under the ESSA, the states, as opposed to the federal government, have flexibility to design the tests they use to measure student performance and growth. States also now have the flexibility to decide how to hold schools accountable for their students’ academic performance, including the responsibility to sanction underperforming schools. While NCLB evaluated schools solely on tests scores, states will now be able to consider other factors, such as graduation rates and school climate. States, however, are required to intervene to help the lowest performing five percent of schools, schools with a subgroup of students who consistently underperform, and high schools with on-time graduation rates lower than 67 percent. States now have the freedom to decide how to help these schools rather than complying with mandates from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education maintains enforcement authority, however, to ensure that states are meeting their mandates under the law.

The White House published a report, “Every Student Succeeds Act: A Progress Report on Elementary and Secondary Education,” last week after the law was passed. The report contains a summary of both the changes in the ESEA as well as an analysis of the progress the White House believes has been made since the President took office.

With the balance of power now shifted to states to oversee education, the hard work for states to develop goals, standards, and measures to ensure all children receive a high-quality education begins again.