ESSA CloudIt’s said that, as much as things change, they stay the same, but that’s not entirely true of the Every Student Succeeds Act, No Child Left Behind’s replacement and the latest rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). That law, enacted back in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program, gave the federal government a say in our public K-12 schools that has grown ever since.

The bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 2, 2002 and was an American education game-changer. Along with its emphasis on accountability and data collecting, such terms as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), proficiency, high-highly qualified teacher, high stakes testing, and teaching to the test became part of the popular vernacular.

Among its many mandates:

  • Annual state testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
  • 95% student participation in the 17 federally required tests.
  • The reporting of all students’ test results, together with such subgroups as English language learners, special education and minority children, and those from low-income families.
  • Sanctions on any schools where either all students or some subgroup did not “make AYP” for two years or more, and on from there.
  • All students to meet the “proficient level” on state tests by the 2013-14 school year.

There was more, of course, but you get the idea. The federal government was in the driver’s seat and more dictates would follow. That was especially true when, to no one’s surprise, not all students were proficient in math and reading by June, 2014. That’s when Obama and then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came up with state waivers. For starters, these “waived” the proficiency-for-all 2014 deadline, allowed states to set their own student-achievement goals and intervene in failing schools as they saw fit. Of course, state after state applied.

This federal largess came with a price, however. Along with even more U.S. Department of Education involvement in our nation’s schools, came forced adoption of the federally-funded Common Core State Standards in math and English/Language Arts and their aligned online assessments, PARCC or SBAC. Those alone cost taxpayers millions. Also on the federal agenda: states having to improve 15% of the worst-performing schools and base teacher evaluations on students’ standardized test scores, known as Value Added Measures, or VAM.

Pushback eventually and inevitably followed.

Enthusiasm for the Common Core Standards, initially adopted by 46 states and D.C. waned and was gradually dropped by many. Ditto for their online assessments. Where PARCC started out with 26 participating states, only seven will administer it this spring. As for SBAC, the initial 31 has slipped to fifteen. At the same time, thousands of parents have joined the testing opt-out movement, wreaking havoc on that 95% test participation dictate and forcing politicians to rethink our testing obsession.

Meanwhile, using those forced Value Added Measures to assess and evaluate teacher effectiveness has now been largely discredited by those in-the-know.

One result: yet more change on the education front, this time by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee.

Optimistically called the Every Student Succeed Act, it was signed into law on December 10, 2015 by Obama, and it’s loaded with goodies and NCLB reversals. However, it also leaves some mandates in place, such as the 95% participation in standardized tests.

Among its other directives:

  1. States make up their own accountability plans pending U.S. Department of Education approval.
  2. States set goals regarding testing and English-language proficiency, graduation rates aiming to close achievement, and graduation gaps.
  3. Accountability systems must contain proficiency indicators on state tests, along with English-language proficiency and an academic factor broken down by subgroup. They must also include at least one non-academic indicator, such as school climate.
  4. States must identify and intervene with regards to the bottom 5% of test-takers and high schools with graduation rates of 67% or lower.
  5. States must test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
  6. 95% of students must participate in testing, but states can determine their own opt-out laws and consequences
  7. With state permission, schools can use nationally recognized tests, such as the SAT or ACT.
  8. States must adopt “challenging” academic standards if not the Common Core, and the U.S. Secretary of Education is barred from forcing/encouraging a particular set of standards.
  9. As of August 1, 2016, Obama’s NCLB waivers are null and void, though essentially still in force until ESSA takes over in the 2017-18 school year.
  10. Accountability for English language learners’ test scores will be phased in over the first 3 years that ESSA is in force.
  11. Only 1% of students may be given alternative tests, amounting to only about 10% of special education students.
  12. States must turn around their bottom 5% of schools.
  13. States can choose to eliminate teacher evaluations based on students’ performance on standardized tests, known as Value Added Measures.
  14. Gone is NCLB’s requirement that core subject teachers be “highly qualified.”

Note that, this time around, the emphasis here is on the states, not the federal government, so hopes are high. However, ESSA is subject to tweaking between now and its official start up in 2017. Indeed, the negotiating has already begun, so stay tuned. Maybe keep your fingers crossed at the same time that its impact is positive for our teachers and the children in their care.