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Every Student Succeeds Act ESSA

On December 10, 2015, the President signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorizes the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the nation’s national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students.  The reauthorized law revises many of the tenets of No Child Left behind (NCLB) which will no longer be the law of the land in fall 2017.

ESSA will maintain a federal role emphasizing more support than sanctions and return the solutions back to state and local control.    With ESSA, states are still required to have challenging academic standards and to test students over them.   ESSA prohibits the encouragement of a specific set of standards like the Common Core Standards.   The type of defined progress under NCLB such as all students being proficient in both reading and math by 2014 has been removed in ESSA where now progress will be defined at the state and local levels.

Students in grades 3-8 will be assessed over reading and math and once in high school as well as a science assessment once per grade span (elementary, middle and high school).   Assessment requirements under ESSA are very similar to NCLB except that the new law will allow for more flexibility such as allowing local education agencies (LEAs) the ability to use a nationally-recognized high school academic assessment (like the SAT or ACT) in lieu of a state-developed assessment, so long as the test can provide comparable data and the state signs off.   ESSA also allows states to utilize federal dollars to audit their assessment system going so far as limiting the amount of time spent on assessments in a grade level.

The flexibility allowed under ESSA could even allow breaking up the assessments to administer parts throughout the school year, providing important feedback to teachers and parents as the year progresses, rather than at the end of the year when the results are less useful for instructional purposes. Since many districts are currently administering formative or benchmark assessments earlier in the year to check in on progress, this flexibility could actually allow districts to eliminate some assessments, as well as reducing the anxiety of taking a big end-of-year exam.

The assessment system is a good example of the opportunity and the challenge that ESSA holds.   State and local leaders will design a framework of assessments and accountability.    Oklahoma schools currently assess math, English/Language Arts, science, social studies, geography, writing, and Algebra I through 8th grade.  Algebra I and II, geometry, English I and II, Biology I, and US History are all high-stakes assessments administered in high school.   It is clear that Oklahoma has an opportunity going forward to reduce the assessment burden and anxiety on students and schools.

The bill removes almost all traces of the federal government from the process of setting goals by placing sole responsibility for the development of accountability systems into the hands of the states themselves.  Under NCLB there were harsh sanctions for schools in improvement that could include even closing schools.  In ESSA, states would be responsible for setting their own long-term and short-term goals for improvement, which would require them to collect data on multiple factors for all students and for subgroups of students.  The federal law would provide some oversight for these accountability systems.

Accountability systems must measure elementary and middle schools by academic achievement on statewide assessments, at least one other measure of academic readiness (which could include growth on the statewide tests), English language proficiency for all English language learners, and at least one other valid measure of school quality or success, such as school climate and safety, student engagement, or educator engagement. High schools would need to be measured by these same indicators, except that their four-year adjusted cohort high school graduation rate must be used as their additional academic readiness factor.

ESSA ensures that states undertake reforms in the lowest-performing 5% of schools, in high schools with graduation rates below 67%, and in schools where subgroups are falling behind.  Districts would be required to use dedicated funding to support evidence-based interventions in struggling schools.

The new bill would eliminate the highly qualified teacher provision currently required under NCLB.  The bill authorizes but does not require states to use funding to implement teacher and leader evaluation systems, a component of the current Oklahoma NCLB waiver that has become tricky to develop.   This bill instead focuses on developing effective teacher and school leaders, and the recruitment and retention of teachers.

The months ahead will be an exciting yet challenging time as education leaders in Oklahoma study and develop new protocols under ESSA.   It will be imperative that the Oklahoma legislature adopt the new math and English/Language Arts standards so that we can begin ready and fresh under this new legislation.