Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act. ©2015 NEA. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of the National Education Association.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is the long-awaited rewrite of the main federal law for K-12 education, and replaces the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act.

The bipartisan measure, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, seeks to rectify the biggest complaint about NCLB: that it gave too much power to the federal government when it comes to holding schools accountable for student performance. But it keeps the dimension of NCLB most people agree worked well: a focus on students from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities, as well as other populations that have historically struggled academically.

ESSA maintains NCLB’s mandate for annual testing, requiring states to continue to assess students in reading and math, in grades three through eight and once in high school. And just like under NCLB, states must break out the results by different subgroups of students: English language learners, students with disabilities, racial minorities, and those from low-income families. States and districts still must intervene in schools that are struggling.  

But the revamped federal law gives states and districts much greater leeway when it comes to almost every other aspect of K-12 education – including choosing standards, crafting accountability systems, setting student achievement goals, and improving low-performing schools. And it calls for states to look beyond just test scores in gauging school performance, to aspects like school climate and teacher engagement.

ESSA also consolidates or eliminates some 50 federal education programs, and gives states and districts much more say over how they spend federal funds. Plus, it includes a list of prohibitions on the secretary of education’s authority when it comes to directing states on standards, school turnarounds, assessments, teacher evaluations, and other issues.

Origin Story

ESSA – and NCLB – didn’t come out of nowhere. Both laws are updates of a much older piece of legislation – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to help improve educational opportunities for poor children.

Like ESSA, NCLB passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support. But educators and local leaders soon grew frustrated with what they saw as a one-size-fits-all approach to school accountability and improvement.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, called for states to work toward the goal of bringing all students to the “proficient” level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. States also had to set short-term achievement targets for schools; those that missed these targets were required to notify parents, allow students to transfer to a better performing school, and to offer free tutoring. Schools that continually failed to improve were subject to even more serious consequences, including a possible state takeover.

After several years, it became clear that no state was going to get all its students to the proficiency level by 2013-14. Eventually, nearly every school would be considered a “failure” in the eyes of the law. Congress couldn’t agree, however, on exactly how to fix NCLB, which was first up for renewal in 2007.

In 2011, the Obama administration stepped in. Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered states waivers from some of the law’s requirements – such as setting aside part of their federal funding for tutoring and school choice and getting all students to proficiency by a certain deadline. In exchange, states agreed to embrace other priorities, like teacher evaluations that relied in part on test scores. States that wanted waivers also had to adopt the Common Core State Standards, or get their institutions of higher education to agree that their standards would get students ready for postsecondary education and training. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia ended up taking the department up on the waiver offer.

But the waivers, too, were plagued with complaints about federal overreach. That put pressure on the U.S. Department of Education to help find a way to overhaul the law.

Support Across the Aisle

ESSA ultimately passed with broad, bipartisan support thanks to the efforts of a quartet of lawmakers: Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va. In fact, the measure was backed by a majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, a rare feat given the polarized politics in Washington.

The final legislation also earned the enthusiastic support of just about every organization or association representing educators, state leaders, and parents. They view ESSA as much needed relief from federal micro-management. ESSA received only qualified support, however, from civil rights organizations, and the disability and business communities. Those groups worry about a rollback of federal protections for historically underserved subgroups of students.

Although President Obama has signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s going to take some time before the new law takes full effect.

NCLB waivers expire on August 1, 2016, and states aren’t supposed to have new accountability and spending plans in place until the 2017-18 school year. The U.S. Department of Education will spend the next year writing federal regulations for the new law, and helping states with implementation.

There are some ambiguous phrases in the new federal law, and some unanswered questions. But much is clear.

Testing: Much  But Not All  Remains the Same

The assessment schedule for reading and math is the same as under NCLB, as indicated above. In addition, the federal law retains a mandate for science testing at least once in each grade span – 3 through 5, 6 through 9, and 10 through 12. Under NCLB, all students in the same grade had to take the same test. That’s generally true under ESSA, with two big exceptions:

  • Up to seven states – or groups of states – can apply to try out “innovative assessments” such as performance tests, in a few districts, with the goal of eventually taking the new systems statewide.
  • Districts can use a nationally recognized test – like the SAT or ACT – at the high school level, instead of the state assessment, as long as they get permission from the state.

Accountability in the ESSA Era

Arguably the biggest shift under ESSA is the newfound flexibility handed to states and districts when it comes to accountability. That said, the law does lay out some explicit expectations. It requires states to set both short- and long-term goals for student achievement. And states must judge school performance on a mix of factors that get at both academic outcomes and students’ opportunity to learn.

  • Elementary and middle schools must consider achievement on state tests, another academic outcome (like growth, rather than just proficiency, on tests), and English Language proficiency.
  • High schools have to consider achievement on tests, graduation rates, and English Language proficiency (for students who are still learning the language.)
  • States must choose at least one other factor that gets at students’ opportunity to learn, like teacher engagement, student engagement, access to advanced coursework, or school climate. Each factor has to be of “substantial” weight and the academic factors have to weigh to carry a “much greater” weight as a group than the non-academic factors. But it remains to be seen what those terms mean in practice.

With regard to intervening in low-performing schools, the law essentially creates two big buckets:

  • Comprehensive Improvement: States must identify schools that fall in the bottom five percent of performers, plus high schools in which only two-thirds of students graduate. Districts must devise “evidence based” plans to fix those schools and states have to keep tabs on their progress. If a school continues to founder for a period of years (no more than four) the state must step in with its own plan.
  • Targeted Improvement: States are required to identify schools in which subgroups of students are “consistently underperforming.” Schools must come up with an evidence-based plan to fix the problem, and districts must monitor their efforts. If the subgroup continues to struggle, the district steps in. The law doesn’t say when that has to happen though. And, if a subgroup’s performance is really, really bad, as in if subgroup students are performing as poorly as a group as the kids at the lowest performing schools, the state is supposed to step in and help if district efforts fall short.  

Rethinking Teacher Quality

States no longer have to evaluate their teachers based, at least in part, on student test scores, like they did under waivers granted by the Obama administration. In fact, the Department of Education is prohibited from interfering with teacher evaluations.

In addition, states are free from another vestige of NCLB – the so-called “highly qualified teacher” requirement, which called for teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and state certification in the subject they teach.

Fewer Programs, More Flexibility in Spending

Congress consolidated nearly 50 programs – including arts education, physical education, and education technology – into a giant block grant called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program. The law recommends about $1.5 billion for the block grant, but it’s unclear if Congress will actually provide that much.

ESSA also creates a few new initiatives, including a successor to the Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation program, a new version of the preschool development program, and a new funding stream to train teachers in STEM subjects and literacy. However, it’s important to note that the inclusion of these programs in ESSA is no guarantee that they will be funded. That requires separate action by Congress.

Finally, ESSA relaxes federal rules that require states and districts to make sure that federal funds don’t replace local spending.

What’s Next?

Even as the new law answers a lot of questions, much remains to be seen. 

For starters, no one is really sure how the many prohibitions on the U.S. secretary of education’s authority will play out, and how far the department can or will go in defining key terms that could have outsized implications for policy.

What does it mean, for instance, for a subgroup of students to be, in ESSA parlance, “consistently underperforming?” What about the stipulation that academic factors should carry “much” greater weight in state accountability systems than non-academic factors, like school climate and teacher engagement? Also, no one is really sure whether most states will try to stick as close as possible to the accountability plans they designed under federal waivers or head in new directions.

Published: March 2016