Evan Vucci, AP
President Barack Obama, flanked by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, and the committee's ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., signs the "Every Student Succeeds Act," a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, in Washington. The law will change the way teachers are evaluated and how the poorest performing schools are pushed to improve. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — The nation's capital is experiencing something of a thaw in polarization and partisanship. And the largest iceberg that has broken free is the Every Student Succeeds Act, the most consequential education reform in the last 15 years.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called it a "Christmas present" to American children. President Obama proclaimed it a "Christmas miracle." The president of the American Federation of Teachers said the law marks "a new day in public education."

What does this mean for students? Let's start, as educators are wont to say, with a review. In 2001, No Child Left Behind, the last major federal education reform, mandated yearly testing in the basics of reading and math for children in third through eighth grade. Schools were required to show yearly progress for students of every background (including every racial background). If a school consistently failed, it was required to implement reforms and, in the worst cases, hire new teachers and reorganize. The law set the utopian goal that every child should be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014.

The whole thing was a mess from the start. Failing schools didn't like to be labeled failures, which made administrators feel like they were, like, you know, failing or something. Many teachers didn't like the relentless emphasis on testing, which ate into their time for the unmeasurable joys of learning. Gov. Jerry Brown of California spoke for many when he recalled the formative prep school experience of an exam that consisted entirely of one question, asking students to give their impressions of a green leaf. That question, he said, has "haunted me for 50 years." "You can't put that on a standardized test," he explained.

The Every Student Succeeds Act ends the backseat driving of the federal government in education policy. State and local officials will now be free to set academic goals and to determine if schools are meeting them. While the law still mandates consequences for the worst-performing schools, states will determine what those consequences actually are. Student testing will still take place, but it won't mean as much. This, according to Obama, will relieve "undue stress for educators and students."

California, for example, is so happy to be free from the tyranny of testing that it has suspended the California High School Exit Examination and ordered schools to retroactively reward diplomas to students who failed the test during the last decade. It has also suspended its Academic Performance Index, which allowed parents to see how the test scores achieved by their local school compares to other schools. In California, accountability will now be imposed according to "multiple measures" in eight "priority areas," leaving parents entirely mystified about the actual performance of their local school.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is a win-win-win for everyone who counts. Most Republicans are pleased that the federal role in enforcing educational standards has been effectively abolished. Many teachers are pleased to see lower stakes on standardized tests. States and localities are pleased that they can declare all their schools successful, or at least to make accountability a fuzzy, gentle, toothless friend.

The problem? We actually have some experience in how education systems operate in the absence of accountability enforced from above. Before No Child Left Behind, only 29 states had real accountability systems; 11 states did not disaggregate by race at all; only 22 states reported graduation rates by high school. What will happen with the end of federal nagging? "We'll continue to see some high-flying states doing really creative, good things for students," concludes education researcher Chad Aldeman. "But we'll see a lot more just kind of getting by and doing the bare minimum, particularly when local politics and inertia prevent state leaders from pursuing bold changes on behalf of disadvantaged students."

1 comment on this story

This is the group that loses in the Every Student Succeeds Act — disadvantaged students, particularly African-American students. Their betrayal by our educational system can now be more effectively hidden in the proliferation of priorities.

We live in a nation in which gaps in academic achievement between black and white students are large, continuing and disturbing. This is a national scandal — a systemic failure resulting in racial injustice. A retreat from educational accountability is the measure of our complacency. And what does it say that the one thing everyone in Washington can agree on effectively devalues the educational needs of black children?

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.