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How schools will be different without No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind put an unprecedented amount of attention on reading and math in American schools
No Child Left Behind put an unprecedented amount of attention on reading and math in American schools
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Congress undid a major tenet of President George W. Bush’s legacy in December. No Child Left Behind is no longer the law of the land.

President Obama signed the first major education law in nearly 14 years, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law takes much of the power over education away from the federal government, which has accumulated more over the past few decades, and returns it to the states.

The federal government will no longer require schools to make progress toward a national education goal. And it won't tell states what to do with schools that aren't succeeding.

The law won't fully go into effect until fall 2017. But here are some of the main ways it will — and won't — reshape education in the US.

1) Students will still take standardized tests

standardized test
These aren't going away anytime soon (although they might be computer-adaptive instead).

For most people, No Child Left Behind is synonymous with standardized testing — and with the dreaded scourge of "teaching to the test," crowding out other subjects in order to drill students on reading and math.

No Child Left Behind required schools to test students every year in third through eighth grades, and once in high school, and to publicly report the test results. They also had to break out scores for groups of students, among them English-language learners, students living in poverty, individual racial groups, and students with disabilities.

That's still true. States still must have "challenging" academic standards. And they still have to test students to see if they're living up to those standards. The annual testing that became a feature of No Child Left Behind isn't going away.

2) But it could make standardized tests less important — and maybe even less frequent

Parents, teachers, and policymakers agree: students in the US are tested too much. And that's not just because No Child Left Behind required annual tests. It's partly because the law defined what it meant for schools to make progress, as measured by tests, toward a goal of getting every student to read and do math by 2014.

Under NCLB, schools with a high percentage of students in poverty that weren't making progress had to take a series of steps, beginning with allowing students to transfer and offering tutoring. Schools that failed year after year could be taken over by the state, or their staff could be fired and rehired.

That meant a lot was riding on the year-end tests, and so states and districts began requiring additional tests to prepare students for them. Now that states can come up with their own consequences or support systems for schools that aren't performing well on tests, it's possible that schools and teachers won't be under so much pressure to perform well.

The Obama administration offered waivers to penalties under No Child Left Behind to states that came up with new ways to evaluate teachers based in part on their students' test scores. That requirement sometimes led states and districts to adopt still more tests in order to diagnose how much progress students made, or to acquire data for subjects other than reading and math to feed into their evaluation system.

The new law lets states evaluate teachers any way they see fit.

Together, the elimination of these requirements means that, although students will still have to take tests at the end of the school year, those tests might not be quite as important to their teachers and schools. And that means states, districts, and schools might ease up on making students take other tests in order to feed evaluation systems or prepare them for the big year-end exams.

3) Schools won't only be judged on test scores and graduation rates

Graduation rates are a key part of evaluating schools' success.

States have to come up with their own way to determine the quality of their local schools. Standardized test scores and graduation rates have to play a big part in those systems. But the Every Student Succeeds Act also requires them to feed in another factor that isn't solely based on academics — something like parent involvement, student surveys, measures of school safety, or even whether students have "grit."

Like the test scores, this has to be broken out for individual groups of students.

If you don't think that standardized test scores capture the most important part of education, this might be a step forward in trying to measure other stuff that matters too. On the other hand, the science on measuring some of these other factors, particularly the trendy concept of "noncognitive skills," can be sketchy.

And while measuring school safety or students' perceptions of their school's environment might make schools place more emphasis on those important factors, it's also not clear if the results will be distorted when there are real consequences attached to them.

4) Struggling schools won't necessarily have to offer services to their students

No Child Left Behind required schools that served a high percentage of students in poverty to take a series of steps if they weren't making progress on standardized tests. At first, they had to allow students to transfer to other schools. If schools continued to not make progress, they had to offer additional services to students, such as tutoring or summer or after-school programs.

These additional programs generally didn't work to improve test scores. Relatively few parents took advantage of the school choice program. And the supplemental services are now mostly seen now as a cash cow for the tutoring industry that had little effect on students' achievement. But it's possible they had non-academic benefits, such as giving kids a place to go after school.

The new law won't require schools to offer these services, because it leaves decisions about what to do about low-performing schools up to individual states.

That means some states might offer similar — or even better, more effective — interventions. And some might choose to do less.

This reflects a broader concern about No Child Left Behind: that without federal pressure, states will return to the historical status who of ignoring the poor performance of students of color, students with disabilities, and other historically disadvantaged groups.

No Child Left Behind's interventions weren't perfect. But states were required to do specific things for schools filled with students that had historically been neglected by the education system -- and now, aside from the bottom 5 percent of schools, they're not.

5) The Common Core is still around

common core math
Students work on math problems in a classroom guided by Common Core.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Opponents of the Common Core touted the bill for getting rid of the federal "Common Core mandate." But that doesn't get rid of the Common Core, which remains in place, in various forms, in 42 states and Washington, DC. States are still required to have academic standards, and to test students to make sure they're meeting them.

What the law does do is make sure that no future Education Secretary can use the tactics Arne Duncan employed in order to get states to sign onto the Common Core in the first place. Duncan made signing on for "college and career-ready" standards a requirement for a competitive grant competition, Race to the Top. It was also pushed on states who wanted to escape some of No Child Left Behind's penalties.

The Every Student Succeeds Act forbids the Education Secretary from ever doing that again. The secretary can't require, or even encourage, states to adopt a certain set of standards. This means that the idea of holding every student in the US to the same requirements in reading and math, a dream of education reformers, is probably dead for now.

6) The state where you live is about to really matter

Educational quality has always varied tremendously by state. Students in Massachusetts do much better on tests than students in Mississippi. But the general structure of how schools are judged has been roughly the same for the past 15 years. So has what happens to schools that are falling short.

Even the newer pieces of the education policy puzzle, such as teacher evaluation systems based on test scores and the Common Core standards, were relatively uniform, thanks to the Obama administration's success at getting most states to adopt them.

That's about to change. Many of the decisions about what to do with standardized test scores, and thus the importance of standardized tests to policy, are now up to states.

Some states will probably have governors who continue to carry the Obama administration's torch, requiring teacher evaluations to include test scores and strictly holding schools to high standards. In those states, standardized testing will continue to be important and the tests will stay high-stakes. And it's possible that some of No Child Left Behind's more positive consequences — increased test scores for low-income black students — will stick around in those states too.

But standardized testing has fallen out of favor, and harsh school accountability isn't always popular. Teachers unions oppose it, and people tend to rate their local schools more favorably than schools in the nation as a whole. Some states are almost certainly going to use the new law as a way to take off some of the pressure of the No Child Left Behind years.

We don't yet know what effect such a pullback would have. But it's clear that the most important figures in education policy in the next few years won't be in Congress or the Education Department. They'll be governors, state superintendents, state legislators, and district leaders.

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