Matthew Tosiello’s third-graders at Abingdon Elementary won’t take a standardized science exam this year because of a new Virginia law
Photographs by Caitlin Teal Price for TIME
February 5, 2015 6:27 AM EST

If you had wandered late last year into Matthew Tosiello’s third-grade science class at Abingdon Elementary School in Virginia, you would have encountered an army of frogs. Origami frogs, that is–palm-size critters made of green index cards, each equipped with a tongue made of either masking tape or water-sodden paper.

Tosiello had asked his 8- and 9-year-old students to design an experiment to determine which natural adaptation–a sticky tongue or a wet tongue–was better for lapping up flies, a role played by eraser-size chads left over from a three-hole punch. The kids then had to describe their hypotheses, methods and findings in a lab report.

It may not have looked like it from a distance–there were no blue books or timed segments, and the classroom was far from silent–but the origami-frog project was actually an exam. A Virginia law that went into effect this year eliminated a handful of mandatory, fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests in public schools, including one for third-grade science. Instead, the law asked teachers to perform “alternative assessments”–performance-based projects to monitor students’ progress.

In the origami-frog unit, for example, Tosiello was able to determine which students were struggling with mathematical concepts like symmetry or measurement (frogs had to be folded precisely, with their tongues exactly 6 cm by 2.5 cm) and which grasped the more complex scientific ideas. “It’s a more appropriate way of looking at a student’s growth,” explained Joanne Uyeda, the principal at Abingdon Elementary. “It’s more authentic.”

Virginia’s move away from standardized testing is a reflection of a seismic shift in public opinion across the country about tests in schools. For the past two decades, the trend in federal, state and local education-policy circles has been to require more and more standardized exams as a way to establish common benchmarks of achievement and to hold schools accountable for their students’ progress. But in recent years, teachers, students, parents and lawmakers from both ends of the ideological spectrum have begun to revolt.

In a speech in January, Arizona state superintendent Diane Douglas called on the governor to defy federal law by opting out of an entire set of required exams. “Stop this madness and put our children first,” she said, echoing prominent officials in Seattle; Denver; Los Angeles; Long Island, New York; and Newark, N.J., all of whom have recently recommended reducing or eliminating tests or the consequences associated with low scores. In addition to Virginia, a handful of other states, including Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, voted last year to peel back the number of state-mandated exams or to reduce their impact, according to Fair Test, an organization dedicated to testing reform. A half-dozen other states are considering such measures this year.

The testing issue is front and center on the national stage too. Lawmakers have promised that in the next five months they will revise and possibly repeal No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that has the power to impose major consequences on schools whose students tend to test poorly. At stake in this decision is not only the future of standardized testing and federal accountability measures in the country, but also how American classrooms will look and feel in the next decade.

At Abingdon Elementary, just outside Washington, D.C., the transition has been gradual. Only three standardized tests were eliminated from the school this year, and the decision was met with enthusiasm from most teachers and parents. But any move by Congress would be far more sweeping. This month, Minnesota Representative John Kline, who chairs the House Education Committee, proposed a bill that would gut the federal requirement for standardized tests, instead handing states the decision of when and how to assess students. And in January, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, floated a proposal that would keep some tests but eliminate the federal consequences associated with low scores. Others–including Patty Murray of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan–have objected to nixing federal accountability measures entirely. Whatever the new, probably renamed, version of No Child Left Behind ends up looking like, its treatment of the role of tests in American education will be the most-watched reform.

Testing Mania

When adopted by Congress in 2001, No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan triumph–an ambitious effort by President George W. Bush to rebrand and strengthen the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a pillar of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Ideological icons on both sides of the aisle, including Ted Kennedy and John Boehner, supported the bill. But if it was once an example of bipartisan goodwill, it isn’t any longer.

The law’s requirement that all public-school children in the country take two standardized exams in reading and math every year from third grade to eighth grade, and then once again in high school, met with widespread, almost instant pushback. The idea seemed sound: the government could use test scores to determine how students were doing according to subgroups like race and income level, then hold schools accountable for their performance. And, crucially, the law had teeth: if a school failed to meet federal benchmarks of progress, it could be sanctioned, reorganized or closed.

But states and districts, panicked that their students would not perform well on all-important end-of-year exams, naturally responded by ordering up all kinds of new tests to track student progress. In many districts, that meant students were suddenly taking government-mandated exams every week or two, in addition to their classes’ regular tests and quizzes. In Gadsden County, Florida, for example, students were required to take a total of 242 standardized exams between kindergarten and their high school graduation day, according to a recent study by the conservative Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Meanwhile, the law’s high expectations didn’t earn it many friends across the country. Almost immediately after it passed, schools began falling short of federal benchmarks for student performance; within a decade, thousands of schools were technically “failing” and therefore subject to sanctions. Overwhelmed, states began petitioning the federal government for temporary waivers from the law on the condition that they meet the feds’ demands in other ways. Soon, No Child Left Behind was honored mostly in the breach: the Department of Education now grants 42 states temporary, conditional waivers. The resulting jury-rigged system has enraged state administrators and fueled the idea that the whole framework is heavy-handed and unworkable. Senator Alexander regularly accuses the Department of Education of acting like “America’s school board.”

Party Strife

The debate over testing has fractured both parties. Tea Party–backed and social conservatives, including presidential hopefuls like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, decry the entirety of No Child Left Behind. The testing, the sanctions, the clumsy system of waivers–all of it amounts to shameless government overreach into what ought to be a local matter, they say.

Establishment and corporate-side Republicans, meanwhile, typically support the law as a valuable accountability tool. The Chamber of Commerce Foundation compared the federal testing requirement to an “annual academic checkup.” “I always thought it was a conservative and sensible public policy to demand some accountability for investments,” Margaret Spellings, who was President Bush’s Secretary of Education and an architect of the law, told Time last month. The federal government, after all, spends roughly $79 billion annually on elementary and secondary education programs in the states.

Middle-of-the-road Republican presidential hopefuls like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will likely walk a tightrope between the two wings of their party, calling for both accountability measures and devolution of power to the states. In a 2013 interview, Bush gave a preview of that rhetorical two-step. He defended his brother’s initiative, saying No Child Left Behind “pushed states that refused to begin the process of reform,” before backing away: “But ultimately, this is a state-driven kind of enterprise.”

Democrats are similarly divided. Their liberal wing, which traditionally leans on the teachers’ unions as pillars of support, objects to No Child Left Behind for forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” molding children into automatons and sacrificing critical-thinking skills at the altar of filling in the right bubble. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, meanwhile, support some federal testing requirements, but with caveats. The AFT, for example, wants to maintain annual exams as a source of information on student progress but limit the ways in which those scores are used to judge how schools are doing.

Hillary Clinton, the as-yet-undeclared Democratic front runner, has not ventured a position on what should happen with No Child Left Behind, but she, like most moderate Republican contenders, may find herself performing a balancing act. As a Senator, she voted for the law in 2001, but on the campaign trail six years later, she opposed “overtesting.” While she earned the AFT’s endorsement, she also championed strong accountability tools, including measures that would tie teachers’ salaries to students’ test scores–an idea that gives many educators the willies.

Both the teachers’ unions and Democrats, who might be natural political opponents of the law, find themselves lured by its strong civil rights credentials. The law is currently the primary tool available for tracking the scores of students across races and income levels. That data provides a basis from which to monitor, and fix, the disparities among students and economically varied school districts. Charles Barone, the policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, has defended No Child Left Behind on the grounds that there needs to be a single yardstick to hold all students to the same standards of achievement.

Those opposed to the testing mandate dismiss the law’s supporters. “You want to know what these tests show you?” asked Bob Schaeffer at Fair Test. “That the local schools serving the largest percentage of kids living in poverty have the lowest scores. We already know that. We don’t need to keep testing and testing to know it.”

Outside the Margins

The strangest part about the testing debate is that almost everyone involved seems to agree on the most important issues. A strong consensus is easy to find for the idea of measuring how students are progressing compared with their peers in different regions and of different races. And even those who have been among the most vocal critics of testing often get on board with measures that reduce the number of tests, tweak the type of assessment or simply eliminate the steep consequences tied to low scores.

But if there is a commonly held goal, the question of how to get there remains. Some would prefer not to answer it at all, choosing instead to delegate those decisions to states and districts. Others argue that a common testing schedule and basic accountability system are necessary to ensure that all schools are held to the same standard. Still others insist that it’s time to think outside the margins. Thanks to the data No Child Left Behind has already collected, as well as new technologies, it is possible today, in a way that it wasn’t 14 years ago, to measure schools by how their kids’ scores improve rather than by whether the scores meet static external benchmarks. And then it may also be possible to eliminate the need for old-school exams entirely, by using tablet computers to track kids’ progress in real time as they use educational apps online.

Perhaps the origami-frog unit in Tosiello’s third-grade class offers all the insight we need. At the end of that green, frog-filled day, Tosiello asked his students to noodle over a few questions. What if, he asked, the location of the flies had been different? What if they had been at the bottom of a long flower, like a test tube? What would the frogs have done? The young scientists pondered the question, and eventually some of them came up with an answer: when things change, the kids decided, you have to adapt.

This appears in the February 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com.

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