[Editor’s note: Terry Donnelly rejoins the Mesquite Local News where he started writing columns in 2008. His columns are available online at www.mesquitelocalnews.com and will appear in the MLN print edition on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Welcome home, Terry.]

In an unlikely scenario, congress and the president connected to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The original act was notable for creating Head Start, giving millions of poor kids a chance to experience group learning and school schedules before kindergarten. The original is also notorious as an eerie foreshadow of its 2001 revision, No Child Left Behind, by making high schools report all 18-year-old males to the selective service so the military wouldn’t leave any child behind who may have been eligible as fodder in Vietnam.

A 1972 revision gave us Title IX, the equal rights section for educational programs. The revision opened the doors for much more competitive athletic activity for women in schools.

The No Child Left Behind revision was well intentioned. But, it mandated educational goals set by politicians, with expectations of reporting testing data. In turn, these data were supposed to generate improved student success. As a major author, former Rep. George Miller (D. Cal.) states openly that he never anticipated the glut of assessments and focus thereon that occurred in attempts to satisfy the act. In a nutshell, they thought they could grow fat pigs by continually weighing them.

Students were grouped for testing by factors that had little to do with their achievement or learning style. These pods of students were all expected to perform at a satisfactory and equal level of achievement on the state run assessments regardless of their skill level. English as Second Language learners were expected to make the grade with the same proficiency as those identified as gifted and talented.

The results were that the assessments did nothing to inform teachers, students, or parents about the skill acquisition of any children. The tests only served as ambiguous data to report with no prescriptive measures attached. They were a complete waste of time. As much as three months throughout the school year were flushed on hours readying for, administering, and collecting data that were of no use in any classroom.

ESL learners who may have just arrived in the U.S. or identified students with learning disabilities who may be two or more years behind their grade placement were all, under NCLB, expected to show proficiency at grade level skills. Judging students, teachers, and schools on that standard is counterproductive to say the least.

On the flip side, students who were performing above their grade placement at the beginning of the year could skate through, learn nothing, and be feted by NCLB standards because they showed proficiency at something they knew ten months prior. Rewarding teachers, students, and schools for letting a bright student laze on cruise control is criminal.

In 2009, as President Obama, through executive action, began to give waivers to states away from the confines of NCLB, many took advantage and began looking at benchmark testing as a way to be sure kids were learning and making expected gains in their skills. By signing onto the waivers, and now, finally, through the law, responsibility for student success and teacher/school accountability is being put back into the hands of each state. Hopefully, the states will cede a majority of those decisions to the local school districts.

Under new rules, many states began to assess with benchmarks revealing baseline data about individual student progress toward proficiency standards. With those waiver testing successes and the recent passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESS), requirements that our nation’s students be judged on ambiguous standards of grade placement skills no longer exist.

The benchmark assessments mark two major improvements. First, in the beginning of each year, benchmarks show where a student is starting the race for knowledge. From the onset established curricula can begin to yield a year’s worth of growth. Along the way assessments show how much progress is being made. At the end of the year it is expected that the student be a year’s worth of learning from where they began. No more expectations that a learning disabled kid will catch up with grade level expectations in one year and even more importantly, no more letting a bright kid slide. A fourth grade Mensa candidate starting at sixth grade level will need to show proficiency with seventh grade standards by the end of the year. With that information, students, teachers, and schools can be accurately evaluated.

Secondly, the group of peers with whom our student is being compared is the group of peers who are not only in the same grade, but who scored similar success on the onset test. The students are being compared with students who are starting at the same point. The end result allows ranking of the most and least successful students and can arm all parties involved with actual data regarding pupil strengths and weaknesses upon which further curricula can be built.

If all goes as planned, this newest iteration will continue what the president started, and allow states to monitor what local districts are doing with their class time.

I am a self-professed bleeding heart liberal, but my mantra has always been that big government should only do what private industry cannot or will not. Conversely, there are issues that locals can do better than federal or state governments. Knowing how to manage their student population is one of them.

Top notch teachers who really can make a difference in schools with lower performance results wanted nothing to do with those schools because they would be deemed non-proficient teachers if 100% of their classes of underperforming students didn’t make proficiency–the very definition of “doomed”. They are good teachers. They can get hired wherever they wish. So, why not go to a highly proficient school where one’s reputation as a professional can grow?

With the advent of Every Student Succeeds, those highly skilled teachers are more likely to take their considerable skills to lower performing schools. Now, with the blessing of the president and congress, and armed with adequate testing measures, they can ply their art and effect a true year’s worth of student growth assessed with valid data.

With President Obama’s insightful state waivers as preview of what may come, and the bipartisan congressional group that worked on ESS, we can be optimistic about the immediate future of American education. Next time I’ll explore Common Core and try to abate rampant fears about “new math”.

Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, the University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.

Donnelly is the author of three books. First You Hear Thunder is an historical fiction account of the fight for civil rights and voting equality during the Sixties. Unfinished is a novel depicting the coming of age of an artist finding his way in an unpredictable and often perilous world. From Zero to Puberty and Other Life Stories is a memoir collection of stories and selected examples of Terry’s opinion column that highlight the people and times from the late 1940s to where we stand today in the twenty-first century.