In this Jan. 10, 2014 file photo Blake Van Ningen, left, Ashton Cushing, center, and Zac Sayler work on an assignment at Freeman Elementary in Freeman, S.D. The U.S. Department of Education has granted a one-year extension to South Dakota and five other states to give them more time to meet provisions of No Child Left Behind. (AP Photo/Jeremy Waltner, File)

Believe it or not kids, there was once a time when public school years didn’t revolve around standardized tests. That time ended in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law. The bill pushed states to set challenging metrics for student achievement, to test kids against those metrics and to take action against schools that didn’t push more and more students to clear the bar every year. By 2014, the law said, every schoolkid in America would need to show proficiency in reading and math.

Rob Saxton hadn’t been a school superintendent very long when the law was passed. But he knew, and he loved to tell you — before and after school-board meetings in his district in the Portland, Ore., suburbs — that no state would make that 2014 goal. He was right. No state hit the target. The Education Department handed out No-Child waivers like No. 2 pencils.

Which doesn’t mean the law didn’t help schools or teachers or, especially, children, as Saxton will tell you today.

Is education better thanks to all that testing data? “I think the answer is yes,” he says. “Significantly yes, actually.”

He is the top appointed school official in Oregon now, a former football coach and high school principal and the son of two teachers. (I covered Saxton when he was superintendent of the Sherwood School District; he was briefly principal of my alma mater, McMinnville High School, when my brother Dan was still a student there. Oregon is a small town sometimes.)


Rob Saxton. Photo: Oregon Department of Education.

A voracious reader of educational research, Saxton was skeptical of No Child Left Behind’s grand 2014 proficiency goal, but he embraced the animating hope of the law: that more testing could yield good information, which could help educators help more children learn critical skills. He and I spoke recently about how the law, and testing in general, have changed American education, and how tougher standards set to come into force this school year will drive more changes to come. The interview is edited for length.

Jim Tankersley: You were right about the unrealistic deadline this year. But has the law worked, overall?

Rob Saxton: I always say, it wasn’t a failure. You have to look at, did it move the dial? We began to disaggregate data in a way that began to show, for everybody, the achievement gaps we have in America – which are largely around race and poverty. (It had) a very profound impact on the way we think about what we’re doing, I hope every day in schools, but also, I hope it crystalizes for everyone what we need as a nation.

Jim Tankersley: What have educators learned from all the testing data that has come out of the law?

Rob Saxton: There are regular reports, regular pieces of data that tell us in a really small level how we’re doing and how we have to be doing. A teacher and a school and a district get some regular feedback in a big way. We’ve begun, I think, to pay more attention now to interim assessments and formative assessments (which help teachers adjust in the middle of a school year to target student needs). We’re beginning to have just enough information where we can string some things together.

One of the big ah-has in Oregon is just how important early childhood is. These experiences that children have early in their lives really shape how well they do in kindergarten. We conducted an assessment of how prepared kindergartners arrive. It really is, how many numbers do they know, how many letters do they know? It really then allows us to say, where do we need to focus our efforts so we can change that?

Jim Tankersley: What are the limitations of the data? Can it tell us how well an individual teacher is performing?

Rob Saxton: There’s all kinds of nuance to that. People knew some time ago that we shouldn’t be talking about how much does this student know (at the end of the testing period), but how much can they learn over a given time frame? There’s not a lot of good research that says a value-added measure is the best way to determine if a teacher is a strong teacher or not. We’ve argued against that for a while now.

But we could look at what typical (student) growth looks like, and ask whether that’s happening in an individual school or an individual classroom. We take students where they are, in one year, and then measure them against all their typical peers. So if you scored a 203 on an Oregon assessment last year, what’s typical growth for someone who did that last year? And how do I grow compared to those?

Jim Tankersley: Have the tests — that data — made education better?

Rob Saxton: The real question is, what does it take to be successful to move into the future? What kids need, and the knowledge set that exists in the world, is different today. Oregon is classic. You could go out and you could quit high school and go out and work in the woods and make more than your teacher in the first year. Those jobs don’t exist very much in Oregon anymore. It takes a different level of education for kids to have what they need, and what we’re trying to put in place is an education system that responds to that need.

If we weren’t doing this, I think our students and our competitiveness, for each individual student, for our communities, for our states and for our nation, would be hampered. I’ve been to meetings where the CEO of the largest company in Oregon says, I don’t ever have to hire another student from the United States. We can hire from anywhere. We’d like to, and I hope you can all help us to prepare students.

If you want to talk about reading skill, use of language, understanding, writing in a deep way, being able to read more technically than what we’ve been able to do, using math in a richer way than we used to, I think those things are all for sure. The education system that we have in place today is better at teaching those things than it’s ever been.

Now, I do worry about creativity and the kind of freedoms we’ve had around education in the past, and whether it’s going to allow us to continue to be, as a country, the kind of inventors and creative thinkers that we’ve always been. There’s a lot of value in that. I would also argue our society is built for that, and creates that based on who we are as Americans. It would be very difficult for schools to stop that from happening, but I still worry about that. When I get visits from people from Japan or China, they always ask, how do you get your kids to be so independent, such free thinkers?

Jim Tankersley: How much change do you expect in all this, in the next decade?

Rob Saxton: The biggest challenge to any and all of this is going to be, as states across the nation, including ours, begin delivering assessments against a higher standard this spring, we’re going to see results that don’t look very good. And there’s going to be huge questions of whether this is right or not. There’s going to be a gargantuan pushback on this. The question is, will we weather that pushback or not?

If people cannot withstand that, we’ll probably move away from where we’re headed, and it will be a significant setback for all of us. It will be a significant setback for the nation, honestly.