NCLB defined a limited but assertive federal role — schools were required to show improvement on standardized tests of reading and math for every subgroup of students or face penalties. By last year, math proficiency had risen to 17 percent for African American fourth-graders and 24 percent for their Hispanic peers. Progress was initially dramatic. Lately, it seems to have stalled.

But most opposition to NCLB was never about improving or refining the law. Some have an ideological opposition to testing as the enemy of educational creativity. They love the intangible joys of the profession, without the inconvenience of demonstrating that their work has any effect. Of course they do. The NCLB assessments cover rudimentary knowledge in math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders. …

The Obama administration’s waiverization of federal education policy involves a bargain. States pledge to pursue some positive reforms — merit pay, greater use of charter schools — in exchange for less rigorous outcome requirements. Note that the reward to states, the jackpot payoff, is lower standards — a measure of their priorities and values. States are permitted to focus on the worst 15 percent of schools, leaving most without effective accountability. The deal dispenses with options for parents with children in low-performing schools, including free tutoring and transfer to a working school. New accountability systems will once again be so confusing that no taxpayer or parent can understand them — the complexity in which mediocrity thrives.