In 2002, the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act launched the country into a whirlwind of school reform driven by accountability and testing. Schools whose students did not perform well—i.e., (1) did not score at least “on-level;” or (2) had major achievement gaps between “majority” students and sub-groups—would suffer a variety of sanctions. Among these were staff replacement, reconstituting the school, district takeover by the state, and assorted financial penalties. The intent of NCLB was to provide a sensible plan to upgrade the quality of education for every student, regardless of socio-economic status and per pupil expenditures.
Then in 2010, along came the Common Core standards for Math and English/Language Arts (ELA). Again, the intent was noble based on the inequality of standards across the country. Among the 50 states, there were enormous disparities in the quality of education. One state would have a robust set of academic requirements and all sorts of intervention programs, while two states away, there were minimal expectations, and low levels of achievement were accepted as the norm. The Core was an attempt to bring consistency and equity to America’s schools. Naturally, each state would be welcome to add to the Core, but all of the states would agree to adopt at least the Core academic standards. That way, every student in America was guaranteed a solid academic preparation for a career and/or higher education, irrespective of financial circumstances or the wealth in his or her state. The Common Core would “level the playing field” and give every American student an equitable opportunity for school success.
But the Common Core was totally mis-handled. What was intended to be a constructive solution to the educational crisis became a lightning rod for suspicion. Instead of allowing flexibility and encouraging customization of the Common Core, states were pressured with political and financial incentives to adopt the Core AS IS. In the process, the Common Core was mis-characterized as wildly Progressive, anti-American, and anti-religious. Even though the Common Core contains no teaching methods or materials, many Americans became convinced that every ridiculous teaching strategy unveiled on national news was part of the Core. Doing away with the Common Core has even worked its way into the 2016 Presidential race.
Worst of all, the combination of NCLB and the Common Core has been allowed to morph into a testing behemoth. Report after report has revealed that in many states, more classroom time is spent on testing than teaching. District testing consumes so much time and resources that not enough of either is left to re-teach. It was as if district leaders had decided that if they just test enough, they’ll get better results. Most reform-watchers agree it was the 1-2 punch of mis-handling the Common Core roll-out and the over-use of testing that created a brand new educational crisis. In response to the public outcry, the U.S. Congress had to act—hence, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
Recently signed into law by President Obama (December 10, 2015), the Every Student Succeeds Act (or ESSA) is the newest reauthorization of the 50-year old Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the 20th century flagship legislation for equal educational opportunity. This new ESSA is an attempt to mollify the outrage over too much testing and suspicions about the Common Core. In fact, ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind (and the covert mandates surrounding the Common Core) with a program that preserves the original intent of both—while removing the menace. Based on the report published in Education Week, below are the main features of the new law. (Alyson Klein. . Inside ESSA/The New Federal K-12 Law. Education Week, 35; Issue 14; December 8, 2015)
Content Standards. ESSA maintains the requirement that every state adopt rigorous and challenging academic standards in all subjects, K-12. These could include the Common Core for Math and ELA, but that is each state’s choice. The Secretary of Education is expressly prohibited from forcing or in any way incentivizing or coercing states to select any particular set of standards, including the Common Core.
Accountability Plans. In addition, schools are accountable for providing an educational program that gives every student the opportunity to accomplish those standards. Each state must submit accountability plans, effective with the 2017-18 school year. Although states can select their own goals, they must include at least proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates. Plans must include specific strategies to close the achievement gaps between sub-groups.
Low-Performing Schools. States must identify and provide intervention for schools at the bottom 5% of performance. In addition, states must identify schools with subgroups who are struggling. These schools must be identified every 3 years. States must identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67% or less. Even more specifically, the states must help each low-performing school to design an evidence-based plan to address the needs of the target students.
Tests. States must test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. These data must be disaggregated by sub-group. The federal mandate of a 95% participation rate for tests remains. Districts are free to choose which nationally recognized tests they prefer, and they may select local tests (to a limited extent) with the state’s permission. States are permitted to create their own testing “opt-out” laws, and the states decide what happens to schools that miss performance targets.
As with our response to every school reform initiative, we at EdFOCUS have geared up and are ready to provide whatever assistance is needed to districts in their compliance with ESSA. As shown in respective areas of our website, we are prepared to provide assistance with: