ESSA Approved by President Replacing NCLB as ESEA Act – What now?

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President Barack Obama signed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)— December 10.  The new law seeks to halt heavy federal involvement in public schools and sends much of that authority back to states and local school districts.  But, what is in the ESSA, when it comes to accountability, testing, programs, and more? And how does it compare to No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s NCLB waivers?

Accountability & Testing

Under ESSA states would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.  In addition, data would still need to broken out  for schools, in addition to the different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).  But, under the new law, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And, while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

States and districts will also have to use locally-developed, evidence-based interventions in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate. States must also flag for districts schools where subgroup students are chronically struggling.  But, the federal School Improvement Grant program is gone, although there are resources in the bill states can use for school turnarounds.  And, in a big switch from the NCLB waivers, there would be no role for the feds whatsoever in  evaluation.

The testing schedule would be the same as under NCLB. But in a twist, up to seven states could apply to try out local tests, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.  And, the framework allows for the use of local, nationally-recognized tests at the high school level, with state permission. So a district could, in theory, use the SAT or ACT as its high school test, instead of the traditional state exam. In addition, the law allows states to create their own testing opt-out laws, although the 95 percent participation rate on tests remains.

Bottom line, States would still have to submit accountability plans to the Education Department. These new ESSA plans would start in the 2017-18 school year. The names of peer-reviewers would have to be made public. And a state could get a hearing if the department turned down its plan.  But, there is no more expectation that states get all students to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year, as under NCLB and no waiver based goals. Instead, states can pick their own goals, both a big long-term goal, and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address: proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates. Goals have to set an expectation that all groups that are furthest behind close gaps in achievement and graduation rates.

Role of the USDE

Under the new law, the U.S. Secretary of Education’s (USDE) authority is very limited, especially when it comes to interfering with state decision-making on testing, standards, school turnarounds, and more. Nonetheless, the law establishes certain ‘guardrails’ that retain some federal involvement in education, although it is unclear how the accountability or “guardrails” provisions of the bill vs. limits on secretarial authority dynamic will play out in regulation.

While there are provisions in the law that folks can point to that show that states and schools will have to continue to ensure equity, it may prove tough for the USDE to implement those provisions with a very heavy hand, according to analysts

School Improvement

In addition, the performance of each subgroup of students would have to be measured separately, meaning states could no longer rely on ‘super-sub-groups’ ( a statistical technique in the waivers that allowed states to combine different categories of students for accountability purposes).

Under the bill, States have to identify and intervene in the bottom 5 percent of performers. These schools have to be identified at least once every three years. States also have to identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less. States in coordination with districts, have to identify schools where subgroup students are struggling.

The list of “indicators” is a little different for elementary and middle schools vs. high schools. Systems for Elementary and Middle Schools will include three academic indicators: proficiency on state tests, English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor that can be broken out by subgroup. States must also add at least one, additional indicator of a very different kind which may include student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, post-secondary readiness, school climate/safety, or whatever else the state thinks makes sense. Importantly, though, this indicator has to be disaggregated by subgroup. States also have to somehow figure in participation rates on state tests. But participation rate is a standalone factor, not a separate indicator on its own.

Systems for high schools will include many of the same indicators in addition to graduation rates which take the place of a second academic indicator. How much each of these indicators will count will be largely up to states, but the academic factors (tests, graduation rates, etc.) have to count “much” more as a group than the indicators that get at students’ opportunity to learn and post-secondary readiness.

Interventions will be focused on the bottom 5 percent of schools and for high schools with really high dropout rates. Districts are tasked with working with teachers and school staff to come up with an evidence-based plan.  The State will monitor the turnaround effort. f schools continue to founder for years (no more than four) the state is supposed to step in with its own plan. That means a state could take over the school if it wanted, or fire the principal, or turn the school into a charter, just like states do under NCLB waivers now. But, importantly, unlike under waivers, there aren’t any musts—states get to decide what kind of action to take.Districts could also allow for public school choice out of seriously low-performing schools, but they have to give priority to the students who need it most.

For schools where subgroups students are struggling schools will have to come up with an evidence-based plan to help the particular group of students who are falling behind.  Districts are required to monitor these plans. If the school continues to fall short, the district steps in. The district decides just when that kind of action is necessary, though; there’s no specified timeline in the deal.  Importantly, there’s also a provision in the deal calling for a “comprehensive improvement plan.” States and districts have to take more-aggressive action in schools where subgroups are chronically underperforming, despite local interventions. Their performance has to look really bad though, as bad as the performance of students in the bottom 5 percent of schools over time.

Resources continue to exist but are modified from the past. The School Improvement Grant program, which is funded at around $500 million currently, has been consolidated into the bigger Title I pot, which helps districts educate students in poverty. But states would be able to set aside up to 7 percent of all their Title I funds for school turnarounds, up from 4 percent in current law.

Standards Adoption

States must adopt “challenging” academic standards. That could be the Common Core State Standards, but it doesn’t have to be. However, the U.S. Secretary of Education is expressly prohibited from forcing or even encouraging states to pick a particular set of standards.


States would no longer have include student outcomes in educator evaluation, as required under the waiver.  In addition, the NCLB law’s “highly qualified teacher” requirement is eliminated under the new law.  Further, the former Teacher Incentive Fund—now called the Teacher and School Leader Innovation Program—would provide grants to districts that want to try out performance pay and other educator -quality improvement measures.

Title I

The current Title I funding formula would remain intact, but there are some changes to the Title II formula (which funds teacher quality).  In addition, maintenance of effort would remain in place, requiring states to keep up their own spending at a particular level in order to tap federal funds.

English-Language Learners & Students in Special Education

Under the new law, accountability for English-language learners would move from Title III (the English-language acquisition section of the ESEA) to Title I (where everyone else’s accountability is). The idea is to make accountability for those students a priority.  States could include English-language learners’ test scores after they have been in the country a year, as under current law.  During that first year, those students’ test scores wouldn’t count towards a school’s rating, but ELLs would need to take both of the assessments, and have the results publicly reported. In the second year, the state would have to incorporate ELLs’ results for both reading and math, using some measure of growth. And in their third year in the country, the proficiency scores of newly arrived ELLs would be treated just like any other students’.

On the special education front, only one percent of students overall could be given alternative tests, equating to about 10 percent of students in special education.


Other Programs

The law combines over 50 programs, some of which haven’t been funded in years, into a big giant block grant. Specifically, the legislation creates a $1.6 billion block grant that consolidates a bunch of programs, including some involving physical education, Advanced Placement, school counseling, and education technology.  Districts that get more than $30,000 will have to spend at least 20 percent of their funding on at least one activity that helps students become well-rounded, and another 20 percent on at least one activity that helps kids be safe and healthy. And part of the money could be spent on technology, although no more than 15 percent can go to technology infastructure.

Some programs live on as separate line items, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which pays for after-school programs and has a lot support on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Other survivors: Promise Neighborhoods, and a full-service community schools program. And there’s a standalone program for parent engagement. There are also reservations for Arts Education, gifted education, and Ready to Learn television.

Further, early childhood investment remains in the “Preschool Development Grants,” that focus on program coordination, quality, and broadening access to early-childhood education. But the program is moved to the Department of Health and Human Services, although the Education Department would jointly administer the program.


The new law outlines the transition plan from the Obama administration’s ESEA waivers, with a drop dead waiver date of Aug. 1, 2016.  States would still have to continue supporting their lowest-performing schools (aka what the waivers call “priority schools”) and schools with big achievement gaps (aka “focus schools”) until their new ESSA plans kicked in.

ESSA would apply to any competitive federal grants beginning Oct. 1, 2016, so most grants would still be under the NCLB version of the law for the rest of this school year. For formula grants (like Title I) it starts July 1, 2016.

Additional Details

For more information on the new law, check out NAESP’s / NASSP’s Cheat Sheet .  Stay tuned as NJPSA works with you and your colleagues to shape communication with local, state and congressional leaders as the new law becomes effective.  

Source: Edweek, NASSP/NAESP