The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015, reauthorizing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, enacted by President Bush in 2002, sparked controversy regarding federal overreach, high-stakes testing and harsh accountability measures, but also provided disaggregated information regarding student achievement by demographics such as race, gender, and English language proficiency. According to ed.gov, the goal with ESSA was to “create a better law that focused on the clear goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers.” The law first and foremost provides states with more latitude when it comes to education policy. On October 5, 2016, the Schott Foundation was joined by Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Anderson and California State Board of Education President Dr. Michael Kirst for a webinar, “Protecting an Opportunity to Learn Through ESSA State Accountability Plans,” to discuss how schools can use ESSA as a tool to improve public education.
Dr. Kirst pointed out that many of the state policies on federal aid have not been overhauled in more than ten years. He explains California’s state strategy when approaching ESSA, which was to first look at what federal aid funding (10% of total expenditures in K-12 in CA) is currently doing: “often these programs have been running on auto pilot, deep in bureaucracies.” California will then assess how federal aid can be changed to reach these new college-ready standards, how the state will integrate the various titles of ESSA (there are 4 major ones), and how to overhaul local applications.
California has already approved an accountability system, identifying 5 key top-line indicators required by the federal government, Dr. Kirst said. The indicators chosen by California include English Language Arts and the mathematics assessments, English learner proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and suspension rates. Schools will report this data to parents, as well as a further breakdown of these indicators into 13 different subgroups which may exist at the school. Dr. Kirst sees this as an opportunity to understand and measure school climate better at a local level. “School climate predicts achievement in a much different way, and are much higher predictors than I expected”, he said.
Dr. Anderson described this new state flexibility as both a challenge and an opportunity. As Dr. Kirst also highlighted, there are now state and local requirements that will have to be tracked very closely. Flexibility, such as states’ ability to define what “highly qualified” means in terms of teacher evaluations, is much needed, Dr. Anderson said. She pointed out that once the accountability plan is put in place, it allows a very comprehensive and holistic plan, not “one size fits all like No Child Left Behind.” In order to get there, however, she reminded us that we need to develop a comprehensive system, and that there’s a “timeline by which these things are to be implemented.”
Both Dr. Kirst and Dr. Anderson spoke highly of the flexibility of assessments that differ from that of NCLB. Dr. Anderson explained that with ESSA, the focus is shifted on college and career readiness: “We’re now focusing on college and career readiness, which means getting them ready for college, not focusing on getting them ready for a test. A test only gives you a number or a score, which is only part of the picture. We’re about serving the whole child.” Along with this flexibility comes the responsibility of understanding how students are being assessed – something that Dr. Anderson urged parents to look into at their children’s schools. She encouraged parents to research their child’s school district accountability plan, what measurements their child is being assessed by, and to take advantage of intervention opportunities if they desire. Because of this flexibility, implementation of ESSA will most likely look different from state to state. ESSA provides states with the flexibility to improve in ways that are specific to their communities, but in order to use ESSA to our advantage, we need to be aware of how states, districts, and schools are implementing it. Only then can we hold policymakers accountable for ensuring that ESSA means a step forward for all children.