The way the nation's public schools are evaluated — teachers, students and the schools themselves — is headed for a major makeover, with a sweeping shift from federal to state control over school accountability and student testing.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 85-12 to approve legislation rewriting the landmark No Child Left Behind education law of 2002, now widely unpopular and criticized as unworkable and unrealistic. The measure now goes to the White House, where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.
The bill would keep a key feature of No Child: the federally mandated statewide reading and math exams in grades three to eight and one such test in high school. But it would encourage states to set caps on the time students spend on testing and it would diminish the high stakes associated with these exams for underperforming schools.
The measure would substantially limit the federal government's role, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance.
Instead, states and districts would come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide independently how to turn around struggling schools. Testing would be one factor considered, but other measures of success or failure could include graduation rates and education atmosphere.
But states would still be required to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high schools with high dropout rates and in schools with stubborn achievement gaps — something Democrats have pushed.
The measure would end the waivers the Obama administration has given to more than 40 states — exemptions granted around the more onerous parts of No Child when it became clear that requirements such as having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 would not be met.
Three of the presidential candidates missed the Senate vote — Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
There was strong bipartisan support for the measure.
"We have an opportunity to inaugurate a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement by restoring responsibility to states and classroom teachers," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who leads the Senate Education Committee and is a chief author of the bill, along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
"This new law will result in fewer and better tests because states and classroom teachers will be deciding what to do about the results of the tests," Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, added ahead of Wednesday's vote.
Under the bill, schools would be required to publicly report the results by students' race, family income and disability status.
Murray, a former preschool teacher, said the legislation would still hold underperforming schools responsible to ensure that all students — minority children, poor kids and others — get a quality education. She also praised the bill for including a key priority for her, a focus on early childhood education.
"For the first time ever, our federal education law will recognize the importance of early learning with the grant program that we have put in place. It's a very good beginning step for our nation," Murray said.
The new grant program would use existing funding to help states improve quality and access to preschool.
On Common Core, education guidelines reviled by many conservatives, the bill says the federal government may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards.
The Common Core college and career-ready curriculum guidelines were created by the states, but became a flash point for those critical of Washington influence in schools. The administration offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for students.
No Child Left Behind passed with broad support in Congress in 2002 and was signed by President George W. Bush.
It was praised for its main intent, which was to use annual tests to identify achievement gaps in learning and failing schools in need of support. But it was later criticized for a heavy-handed federal approach that imposed sanctions when schools came up short — leading teachers, administrators and others to worry that the high stakes associated with the tests were creating a culture of over-testing and detracting from the learning environment.
No Child has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but previous attempts to renew the law have been caught in a broader debate over the federal role in public educatio