The Every Student Succeeds Act

By: Jarienn James

On December 10, 2015, a bipartisan bill revising the National Education Law was signed into law by President Obama. Using twelve pens, President Obama repealed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA prepares children for college and affirms the government’s commitment to ensuring each child receives quality education. President Obama remarked NCLB had the right goals such as:

high standards, accountability and closing the achievement gap… [However,] it didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community. It led to too much testing during classroom time. It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see.

This war on education began in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). President Johnson believed that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.” This civil rights law would expire every three to five years, leaving Congress to reauthorize it. In 2001, the Government, in response to the significantly low achievement standards of the poor and the minority students created the NCLB.

Purpose of the Acts

The purpose of the NCLB was “…to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.” The NCLB delved further and listed twelve steps that States may use to achieve its goal. Some of the methods listed under NCLB §1001 included:

  • Ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement;
  • Providing greater decisionmaking authority and flexibility to schools and teachers in exchange for greater responsibility for student performance;
  • Significantly elevating the quality of instruction by providing staff in participating schools with substantial opportunities for professional development;
  • Providing children an enriched and accelerated educational program, including the use of schoolwide programs or additional services that increase the amount and quality of instructional time;

On the other hand, under §1001 of the ESSA, the Act’s purpose is to “…provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.”  The ESSA gives the States greater latitude and allows teachers to have more control over the curriculum. The NCLB was more regimented and assessment based. Critics charge that Art education declined under the NCLB because teachers focused more on preparing students for statewide assessments in Math and English. Consequently, students had narrow interests in learning. Under the ESSA, teachers should be able to develop a wider curriculum to better meet the needs and skills of every child.


Assessment Standards and Consequences

Under the NCLB, schools were required to show “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP). AYP was defined in the NCLB under §1111(b)(2)(C) as a standard by the State which included measuring the progress of public elementary schools, secondary schools and local educational agencies and the State primarily on the state wide academic assessments in mathematics, language arts or reading and from 2007 – science. These tests were to be conducted at least three times from Grade 3 through 12.  States had to ensure that each child was at grade level in Reading and Math by 2014.  Moreover, schools were required to show improvement in many subgroups such as race, disability and socioeconomic status. Underperformance from one group meant the school was underperforming.

Opponents of the NCLB argue this pressure resulted in disadvantaged students being lumped together and having more parent/ teacher involvement. The curriculum was narrowed and teachers spent less time on arts and foreign languages.

In addition, there were several penalties if a school failed to show AYP.  Students could transfer to another school if a school failed to show AYP after two consecutive years. Failure after more than two consecutive years could result in funding for private tutoring, changing the school’s governance including firing the principal, converting to a charter school, lengthening the instruction  period or closing the school. In 2011 several states saw failure rates of more than 50 percent and the Government offered states waivers to the law’s mandates. It was clear that it was time for the law to be rewritten.

Under the §1111(b)(1)(A) of the ESSA, the State only needs to provide assurance that it has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards with no less than  three levels of achievement standards. A State is not required to submit such challenging State academic standards to the Secretary. States can create their own improvement strategies without worrying about loss of federal funding. Schools can develop a curriculum that includes more subject areas and allows teachers greater leverage in dividing their time among courses. Children will have more opportunities to develop in the arts and be well rounded individuals.

In addition, teachers will have greater access to federal funds to assist with their professional development. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “You can’t have a great school without great teachers and principals.” Therefore, the ESSA improves the quality of teaching and the opportunities available to students simultaneously.

In addition, under §1111(b)(2)(B)(viii)(II) the assessment criteria is not limited to state wide assessments and there is no AYP requirement. States can have multiple statewide interim assessments or a single summative assessment. However, Students are still required to take the annual test in Grades 3 through 12. Further, states are allowed to use computer-based tests and other tests that effectively assess students at their level. Improvement is assessed on more than test grades. Other forms of assessment include a student’s improved attendance, classroom grades, on time advancement to the next grade level and successful completion of internships.

Moreover, the ESSA introduces under §1111(b)(1)(E)(i), “Alternate Academic Achievement Standards” for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. However, these standards  among other  requirements must align with  the challenging State academic content standards, reflect professional judgment as to the highest possible standards achievable by such students and must be aligned to ensure that a student who meets the alternate academic achievement standards is on track to pursue postsecondary education or employment. Also, under §1111(b)(2)(B)(vii)(III), ELL students can be tested in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data as to the child’s actual knowledge of the academic content. With the wider range of assessment criteria, English Language Learners and children who take more time to grasp academic concepts will have a better chance of succeeding in school and rising to the level of their peers.

Therefore, based on the above, significant strides have been made to accommodate the unique approaches to education within States. According to President Obama, the ESSA is just the beginning. During his final State of the Union Address in January 2016 President Obama stated,  he would like Pre- K to be free for all children; every student to have “hands on computer science and Math classes” making them better prepared for work and for every student to have two years of community college. The ESSA is promising and is a significant improvement to its predecessors.