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Leaving behind No Child Left Behind

Along the Columbia River in rural Clatsop County, classrooms in Knappa are alive with arts, music, and meaningful career and technical education. It’s noteworthy that Knappa has arts and career-development programs in part because it defies an unfortunate trend. For the last 14 years, misguided federal education policies have dragged the attention of school leaders toward tested subjects, often at the expense of other learning opportunities.

Under No Child Left Behind, high-stakes tests contributed to narrowed curricula and stifled the joy of teaching and learning. Schools and students were under pressure to reach unattainable levels of achievement, which was measured almost exclusively by math and reading test scores. One-size-fits-all interventions for struggling schools denied local educators the flexibility they needed to develop strategies that were appropriate for their communities. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici

Nearly all of my colleagues in Washington, DC, agreed that No Child Left Behind needed to change. Such wide agreement brought lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together to find common ground. As a member of the bipartisan panel that finalized the new approach, I searched for opportunities to reduce testing and return more control to states and school districts. Last week, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind.

During the long debate about how to strengthen public education, I spoke with educators, students, and parents in each of the 25 school districts I represent. One concern I heard often is that there are too many tests. The Every Student Succeeds Act makes thoughtful changes to reduce the burden of current testing practices in several ways.

First, it takes the high stakes out of test scores and asks states to consider multiple measures of student learning rather than just the score on a single exam. Any educator can tell you that students demonstrate what they know in many different ways.

Second, although the current tests have been unpopular, throwing out the information they provide would have been an overcorrection. That’s why I wrote a bipartisan provision into the law that gives resources to districts to make better use of assessments and eliminate unnecessary or duplicative tests. Overall, the new law should lead to fewer, better tests without discarding a useful tool for gauging learning.

Importantly, the new law emphasizes a well-rounded education. It includes provisions I wrote to encourage the incorporation of arts and design into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), so students will be more creative and innovative and more prepared for the jobs of the future.

We should applaud that we are finally leaving behind No Child Left Behind. Goodbye to the days when the federal government labeled schools as failing and prescribed a nationwide formula for school improvement. Under ESSA, our educators, parents and leaders in Knappa and Gaston, Beaverton and Scappoose — and across the country — will be able to do what’s best for their students.