JUST ABOUT EVERYONE agrees on the need to update the No Child Left Behind law. Nearly a decade of experience as well as new research underscores shortcomings that are becoming increasingly untenable for local school districts. It would be ideal for Congress to fix these problems, but that could mean a long wait. In the meantime, the Obama administration is right to use its authority to give states new flexibility without abandoning the law’s expectations that all children must succeed.

Last week, President Obama and his education secretary, Arne S. Duncan, unveiled plans to give states relief from some of the law’s most rigid requirements in exchange for reforms. The waivers would free states from NCLB’s deadline — increasingly seen as unattainable — of all children being proficient in math and reading by 2014. In return, states would have to measure teachers’ success by setting standards for whether children are ready for college or careers and would have to set ambitious but achievable goals.

There’s a risk that states will backslide on accountability, but that seems unlikely, given that many core features of NCLB will remain in effect. Schools will still have to conduct yearly reading and math tests, measure by category — including minority and special-education students — and make the scores public. The days of schools gliding by on the accomplishments of their best students while hiding their failures are over.

The plan came under criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill (interestingly it got a much better reception from Republican governors) not so much for its substance but for the fact that the administration was taking action — or overstepping, critics alleged. But it’s estimated that more than 80 percent of the country’s schools won’t meet student proficiency goals by 2014 and would have to undertake drastic measures. This includes many top performers that missed annual yearly progress because of a handful of struggling students or because the formula gives no credit for annual improvement. The 2002 NCLB law gave the education secretary broad authority to grant waivers; states reluctant to meet the administration’s reasonable conditions don’t have to apply.

Likewise, nothing is preventing Congress from acting. The House recently passed the first of a series of bills aimed at replacing NCLB by the Republican chairman of the education committee, Rep. John Kline (Minn.), but there’s been little movement on the full rewrite that is needed. Maybe the administration’s action will spur Congress.