Topic: ESSA

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

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

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 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

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Sara Ray Stoelinga, the director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, joined colleague Timothy Knowles for a breakfast panel titled “10 Lessons to Take Home From Chicago” at the EWA event.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Arne Duncan: Education Is ‘Great Equalizer’ But Not Yet National Priority

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fields reporters' questions culled by Motoko Rich of the New York Times at EWA's National Seminar in Chicago, April 21, 2015. (Lloyd Degrane for EWA)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan subjected himself to what might have been the ultimate edu-press conference in Chicago Tuesday, allowing hundreds of reporters to grill him on testing, No Child Left Behind, college ratings (and yes, White Suburban moms) at the Education Writers Association’s 68th National Seminar. 

Multimedia

RIP NCLB?: A New Role for Uncle Sam
2015 EWA National Seminar

 RIP NCLB?: A New Role for Uncle Sam

Speakers, including U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-IN, offer reporters the lay of the land and discuss how rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act may affect their school districts and states. Some speakers say NCLB is already dead, but they’re still not certain what will take its place, other than policies handed down through the U.S. Department of Education’s waivers from NCLB provisions.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Congress Moves a (Big) Step Closer to Rewriting No Child Left Behind

A congressional compromise is at hand to rewrite No Child Left Behind, removing many of the more onerous provisions of the federal education law while giving states greater flexibility in accountability.

While the “Every Student Achieves” bipartisan bill announced Tuesday still has significant hurdles to clear before passage, it’s certainly the closest Congress has come to an agreement on revising the education law in nearly a decade.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

March Madness, Renaming NCLB

Kristina Baskett competes on bars, University of Utah Women's Gymnastics. (Flickr/lemonjenny)

While we can’t do anything about your dismal bracket selections, EWA can help reporters with story ideas for covering “March Madness” and college sports. Catch a replay of our recent webinar, which highlighted some smart ideas, the latest research, and expert sources on the intersection of higher education and athletics. 

Report

Data Dashboards: Accounting for What Matters
Alliance for Excellent Education

As Congress works to rewrite the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and improve accountability systems for public schools across the country, this report highlights how going beyond a test score when assessing achievement in schools and districts provides more transparent and precise ways to continuously track performance, monitor accountability, and ensure the most at-risk students are not lost in the numbers.

Read the report.

Report

Expanded Learning Time: A Summary of Findings from Case Studies in Four States
Center on Education Policy

Many low-performing schools across the nation have increased learning time in response to federal requirements for the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The conditions governing federal waivers of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also require certain schools to redesign the school day, week, or year to include additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration. Furthermore, the waivers allow greater flexibility to redirect certain federal funding streams toward increased learning time.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The 2015 Education Beat: Common Core, Testing, School Choice

Students at New York University work on a computer programming project. More interactive learning is expected to be a hot topic in the coming year on both the K-12 and higher education beats. (Flickr/Matylda Czarnecka)

There’s a busy year ahead on the schools beat – I talked to reporters, policy analysts and educators to put together a cheat sheet to a few of the stories you can expect to be on the front burner in the coming months: 

Revamping No Child Left Behind

Blog: The Educated Reporter

How Much Time Do Students Spend Taking Tests?

Amid the strong and growing drumbeat of complaints about overtesting at the K-12 level, many education reporters and others may be left wondering how much time students really spend taking standardized tests. And who is demanding most of this testing, anyway? The federal government? States? Local districts?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

For Waiver States, More Time for Teacher Evaluations

States receiving waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act are getting more time to grapple with how to conduct teacher evaluations using student test scores, particularly the new Common Core State Standards-based assessments.

According to Education Week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the postponement at an event on Thursday in Washington, D.C., which earlier this summer announced its plan to delay its new teacher evaluations.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Atlanta Cheating Scandal: New Yorker Magazine Gets Personal

The July 21 issue of The New Yorker takes us deep inside the Atlanta cheating scandal, and through the lucid reporting of Rachel Aviv, we get to know some of the teachers and school administrators implicated. We learn not only how and why they say they cheated, but also about the toxic, high-pressure environment they contend was created by Superintendent Beverly Hall’s overwhelming emphasis on improving student test scores.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

NCLB Waivers: What Reporters Need to Know

Education reporters can access a treasure trove of public documents that track significant changes to state exemptions to the most sweeping federal education law of the 21st century, experts said in May at EWA’s 67th National Seminar. 

And reporters will need those documents to piece together the patchwork of state policies that have been created out of the NCLB waiver process established by the U.S. Department of Education,  said the panelists speaking at the EWA event at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  

Report

The Effect of ESEA Waiver Plans on High School Graduation Rate Accountability

Based on an extensive analysis of state waiver plans, this report shows that recent progress in holding schools accountable for how many students they graduate from high school—the ultimate goal of K–12 education—may be slowed in some states based on waivers recently granted under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The report includes a review of approved waiver plans submitted by thirty-four states and the District of Columbia.

Organization

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a right-leaning think tank focused on education policy. According to its mission statement, the institute aims to advance “educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.”

Organization

The National Education Association

The National Education Association is the nation’s largest teachers’ union with nearly 3 million members. Its members work at every level of education, from preschool through postsecondary, but the bulk of its members work in K-12 education.

Organization

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing is known more commonly as FairTest. The organization “advances quality education and equal opportunity by promoting fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools. FairTest also works to end the misuses and flaws of testing practices that impede those goals.” For journalists, this group has become the go-to resource for statements critical of standardized tests. They have been a vocal critic of the regimen of testing  that NCLB mandated.

Organization

Education Sector

Education Sector is a Washington, D.C.-based, non-partisan think tank that has followed NCLB from its legislative development through its implementation. Their experts can offer a range of information about impact of the law’s requirements.

Organization

The Alliance for Excellent Education

The Alliance for Excellent Education “is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization that works to improve national and federal policy so that all students can achieve at high academic levels and graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century.” With regard to NCLB, the Alliance says the law “has played an important role in highlighting achievement gaps, but it has steadily proven to be inadequate in providing sufficient remedies and flexibility.

Organization

The American Association of School Administrators

The American Association of School Administrators counts more than 13,000 educational leaders from across the United States and the world in its membership. These members include chief executive officers, superintendents and senior level school administrators along with cabinet members, some professors and others who manage schools and school systems. AASA was founded in 1865. Regarding NCLB, AASA has asserted that “The accountability system should be made up of measures of growth that differentiate levels of success.

Organization

The Council of Chief State School Officers

The Council of Chief State School Officers is “a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions,” according to the group.

Report

States’ Perspectives on Waivers: Relief from NCLB, Concern about Long-term Solutions, by Jennifer McMurrer and Nanami Yoshioka at the Center on Education Policy

This report describes states’ early experiences in applying for flexibility from key requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as NCLB waivers, and their plans for implementing the new systems outlined in their applications. Findings from the 38 survey states indicate states believe that the waivers address several of the problems they see with the NCLB accountability requirements, however, many state officials are concerned about what will happen to the programs and policies in their waiver plans if ESEA is reauthorized.

Key Coverage

Broad Changes Ahead as NCLB Waivers Roll Out

The waivers being granted to 10 of 11 states that applied for flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act would allow them to make potentially broad changes in how school performance and the performance of student subgroups are judged under the decade-old law.

Key Coverage

States Punch Reset Button With NCLB Waivers

The leeway to set the new academic goals tacitly acknowledges that the 100 percent goal is unrealistic. But it also means that members of racial and ethnic minorities, English-language learners, and students with disabilities will fail to master college- and career-readiness standards by the end of the 2016-17 school year at greater rates in most waiver states.

Key Coverage

Rural States in Hunt for NCLB Waivers

At least half the schools in Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia are considered rural by the National Center for Education Statistics. Alabama also has a high number of rural students, while Hawaii’s single, state-run school district educates some students who live in remote island areas.

Key Coverage

K-12 America Since 1981

This interactive timeline provides links to dozens of articles as they appeared when first published, providing a treasure trove of information, particularly the evolution of No Child Left Behind. The timeline can be organized by topic and chronology.

Key Coverage

Teachers in Training Deemed Highly Qualified by Congress

A publication out of Teachers College, Columbia University, offered this round up of the chief debates and controversies surrounding the Highly Qualified Teacher provision of NCLB through its accompanying blog. It focuses on a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision limiting the HQT provision and Congress disregarding that ruling.

Key Coverage

John Kline’s No Child Left Behind Bills Strike at Values of Brown v. Board of Education, Coalition Writes

This Huffington Post article examines the frustrations various advocacy groups have with national education laws, specifically the U.S. House of Representative’s effort to reauthorize ESEA. While this article looks into the fallout over accountability measures for minorities, English language learners and low-income students, it brings up the bigger issue of how much accountability and closing the achievement gap matter to stakeholders.

Key Coverage

House ESEA Bill Would Lift Title I Spending Requirements

This analysis piece from New America Foundation, a small but influential Washington D.C. think-tank, provides a clear account of several Title I funding issues tied to NCLB. While the article’s author focuses on House Republican efforts to rewrite the national education law, her revenue allocation insights are likely to aid journalists wanting a technical edge in their reporting moving forward.

Key Coverage

In Defense of No Child Left Behind

This 2012 essay written by Andrew Rotherham, who co-founded the seminal education groups Education Sector and Bellwether Education, offers a defense of NCLB, painting a picture of how the law forced education players to recognize an achievement gap existed between races, gender, and the rich and poor.

Report

AYP Results for 2010-11

This Center on Education Policy report estimates 48 percent of states missed AYP in 2011. In general, CEP provides informative reports and large-scale surveys testing the moods of educators and administrators.

Report

Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005-2009

This National Center for Education Statistics report compares state standardized scores that measure AYP and how they measure up to the rigors of NAEP. The authors conclude states vary widely in how they define proficiency in a subject. For added context, read Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post’s respective articles summarizing the report, via This Week in Education.

Key Coverage

Tutoring Program Not Hitting Its Marks

This article from 2009 highlights the ineffectual but costly role supplemental educational services played in improving achievement for at-risk and low-performing students in the Las Vegas region. A 2011 draft paper looked at SES programs nationwide, concluding few are effective.

Key Coverage

States Gear Up for New Federal Law

This 2002 article characterizes the moods of 45 state heads of education as mostly positive. Many were looking forward to NCLB, particularly the emphasis on tougher standards and the billions more in Title I funds the new law would bring.