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Obama signs Every Student Succeeds Act, marking the end of an era

With the stroke of a pen, the No Child Left Behind Act became history on Thursday. 

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan replacement to the universally unpopular, nearly 15-year-old education law. At the White House ceremony, he was joined by legislators, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, his successor John King, and a middle school student. 

“This is an early Christmas present,” Obama said. “After more than 10 years, members of Congress from both parties have come together to revise our national education law. A Christmas miracle." 

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The signing of the new law culminates a period when schools were graded and deemed to be successes or failures based on their students’ standardized test scores. It marks a recognition by  many educators, states, researchers and districts that what happens in a school is much more complex than a single number could ever show.

No Child Left Behind was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 to much pomp and promise. The law dramatically expanded the federal government’s footprint in America’s public schools by mandating annual standardized testing in math and reading from grades three to eight and once in high school. NCLB established a goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 and punished schools based on those test scores.

“The goals of No Child Left Behind … were the right ones,” Obama said. “But in practice, it often fell short. … It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms.”

The new law still requires standardized tests in grades three through eight and in high school, and the reporting of how all students do on those tests, but it gives states more authority. Instead of mandating specific punishments, the law says that states and districts can intervene in underperforming schools by whatever “evidence-based” method they choose.

States must identify schools that need extra help by creating an accountability system that weights academics much more than other factors, but also includes at least one non-academic factor. The law requires states to identify and work with the bottom 5% of its schools; schools where more than a third of students don’t graduate high school on time; and schools where specific groups of students consistently underperform. The law also requires reporting on college enrollment and expands high-quality preschool, and requires that states set academic standards that reflect college readiness.

“With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamental American ideal that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the ZIP Code where they live, deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they will,” Obama said, adding that the administration would be talking to stakeholders to “make the promise of this law reality.”

Since NCLB’s expiration in 2007, Congress has taken up rewriting the bill in fits and starts, but divisions between Democrats and Republicans halted almost every effort.

Obama campaigned on rewriting No Child Left Behind, and he gave Congress a deadline of 2011 to get the job done. But when that didn’t happen, he invited states to apply for waivers to get them out of the law’s most cumbersome strictures, in exchange to agreeing to Obama-favored reforms such as tying teacher evaluations in part to students’ test scores.

Most states received waivers, but not California. Instead, a group including some of the state’s largest districts, including Los Angeles, jointly applied for a waiver and got one.

The law is getting positive reception in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and Board President Steven Zimmer released a joint statement showing their support.

“We applaud President Obama for signing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which offers new opportunities to serve schools and students,” they said. “We look forward to working with the California Department of Education in designing a new accountability system that will allow us to measure our progress in helping our students achieve.”

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Assn. union, also favored the bill. “We are excited to witness and help usher in a new era of local control and reform at the federal level that recognizes the potential of all children,” Heins said in a statement.

California might be ahead of other states in implementing ESSA, because the state is already devising a system for measuring schools that considers more than just test scores.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson rejoiced. “Congress and President Obama have followed California’s lead in eliminating categorical funded programs in favor of larger block grants, enhancing local control, and providing more flexibility to set up accountability systems using multiple measures to assess progress instead of a single test score,” he said in a statement.

But the law could divert the state’s plans, depending on upcoming regulations. Mike Kirst, president of the California Board of Education, has said he had been planning for a system in which the states monitor many factors — including test scores but also college readiness, English language acquisition and suspension rates, among others — at the same time. But if ESSA requires all those factors to be boiled down into one number, that would require a major course change. Kirst said  he hopes California will be active in the regulatory process.

Twitter: @Joy_Resmovits.


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3:30 p.m.: This story was updated to include a statement from California Teachers Assn. president Eric Heins.