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Congress might end No Child Left Behind, but your kids will still take standardized tests

A protest in Colorado against standardized testing.
A protest in Colorado against standardized testing.
Craig F. Walker/Denver Post via Getty Images
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.

For most people, No Child Left Behind means one thing: standardized tests.

And although the 2002 education law might be on its way out, the tests themselves are probably here to stay.

Congress is closer than it's ever been on an agreement to get rid of No Child Left Behind, which has been overdue for reauthorization since 2007. But although a new law could change the consequences attached to standardized tests, or how important they are to schools and teachers, it won't get rid of the tests themselves.

Why standardized testing is here to stay

standardized tests

Bubble sheets are gradually being replaced by computerized testing, but standardized tests are here to stay.


Since 2002, No Child Left Behind has required states to test students annually in reading and math in third through eighth grades and once in high school, as well as occasionally in science.

And even though Congress is trying to rewrite the law, the new versions keep the standardized testing requirement. That means for kids and parents, the post–No Child Left Behind world will look a lot like the pre–No Child Left Behind world. They'll still have to take annual tests, and those tests might still have consequences for schools attached to them.

Last December, it briefly seemed like annual testing might not survive a rewrite of No Child Left Behind. A very early version of the bill that passed the Senate on Thursday would have let states decide how often to test students, according to Education Week.

That provision didn't make it into the final bill. Annual testing will survive. Its supporters are diverse: They include civil rights groups that say standardized tests help highlight and close achievement gaps, and conservative Republicans who say that annual testing helps parents make choices about where to educate their kids, among others.

The new bill does change how those tests will be used

No Child Left Behind's tests were in service of a lofty goal: that every student would be able to read and do math by mid-2014. Schools had to be making "adequate yearly progress," as measured by standardized tests, toward those goals; if they weren't, the federal government dictated what sanctions schools would face.

As No Child Left Behind seemed likely to linger past that mid-2014 deadline, the Obama administration made standardized tests even more important. States could escape some consequences of the law if they set new goals and made other policy changes, including linking students' standardized test scores to teachers' pay and promotion. So tests were no longer just important to schools, they were also important to individual teachers.

The Senate bill would make tests slightly less crucial:

  1. States would be allowed to set their own goals for student achievement, and they'd be allowed to develop their own system to hold schools accountable for meeting those goals. Test scores have to be a factor, but the bill doesn't say how much weight test scores should be given.
  2. States will still have to identify low-performing schools, but it's up to them how they decide to define "low-performing." The law doesn't say how many schools states have to single out for low performance, or what states have to do about those schools once they've identified them.
  3. States would still have to report test scores for black and Hispanic students, students learning English, and students with disabilities, as well as overall test scores for all students.
  4. States could keep developing new teacher evaluation systems if they wanted to, but they don't have to.

In other words, states get much more flexibility to decide how to determine school quality and what to do about schools that are falling short. They also wouldn't be required to judge teachers based on their students' test scores.

The state systems could deemphasize standardized tests — but will they?

Although standardized tests have to factor into the accountability system, the Senate bill doesn't dictate how much weight states should give test scores as compared to other factors.

That could take some of the pressure off standardized tests — and it's a big reason why unions celebrated the bill.

"What we want are real indicators that could give us deeper, more meaningful information about how well our children are doing," said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, shortly after the Senate bill passed. She suggested the percentage of high school graduates who have earned college credit as one way of measuring whether children are achieving.

But it's not clear that states will choose to emphasize factors other than test scores. They've had some flexibility to do that since 2010, when the Obama administration began granting waivers to No Child Left Behind. While some states added in additional measures of academic achievement, most states ended up choosing to stick with test scores as the primary way to evaluate schools.

So just because the federal government gives states flexibility, it doesn't mean they'll take it — and that means throwing out No Child Left Behind could end up not doing much to change the dominance of standardized testing.

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