The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Sweet Little ESSA Is No More Friendly Than Mean Old NCLB

on January 17, 2017

With the weather still so awful here in Portland I finally got around to reading some things I had ignored because of the challenges they presented. One of them was a booklet produced by Education Week explaining the intricacies of ESSA. Until now my general understanding has been that ESSA is an improvement on NCLB because it returns many decisions about what schools should be doing to the states. What I did not realize before was that state and local accountability are increasing under ESSA and the penalties are just as bad as those  under NCLB.

In returning the authority for educational decisions to the states under ESSA the federal government has also assigned several new responsibilities. Once the new law is put into practice each state will be required to write its own school improvement plans, set into motion systems for monitoring the operations of all schools, design new report cards, select or create new student tests, and design a new teacher evaluation system. In addition, they will be expected to provide assistance to any school– or all schools– showing poor student performance.

Rather than trying to explain all the new state responsibilities in my own words, I will quote one section of the Education Week  booklet verbatim. (It is more lucid than I could be.)


States must continue to submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of education, as they did under No Child Left Behind. These new ESSA plans will start in the 2017-18 school year. The names of peer reviewers have to be made public, and a state can get a hearing if the department rejects its plan.


States can pick their own goals, both a big long-term goal and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address students’ proficiency on tests, English language proficiency, and graduation rates.

Goals have to set an expectation for closing the achievement and graduation gaps for “subgroups” of students, including English language learners, those in special education, and those in poverty.


States need to incorporate a total of five types of indicate of school performance into their accountability systems, four of them specifically linked to academics, plus at least one that reflects school quality or student success


New under ESSA, this indicator of school quality aims to get at factors that may not be captured by the typical test and metric-driven measures of school performance. Possibilities include student engagement, educator engagement access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, school climate and safety, or whatever else the state thinks makes sense. This factor will apply for schools at all levels—elementary, middle, and high schools.


In addition to the school quality indicator, the lineup for elementary and middle schools must include students’ proficiency on state tests and English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor that can be broken out by student group, such as growth on stet tests.


In addition to the school quality indicator, high schools will be judged by basically the same set of indicators as elementary and middle schools, except that graduation rates will have to be part of the mix. Graduation rates could take the place of one academic indicator.


States have to incorporate participation rates on state tests into their accountability systems. (Schools with less than 95 percent participation are supposed to have that included.) But the participation rate is a stand-alone factor, not a separate indicator on its own.


It will be up to the states to decide how much the individual indicators will count, although the academic factors (tests, graduation rates, and so on) will have to count “much” more as a group than the indicators that get at students’ opportunity learn and postsecondary readiness.


States must identify and intervene in schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent of performers. These schools have to be identified at least once every three years.

States have to identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less.

States, with districts, have to identify schools where groups of students are struggling.


For the bottom 5 percent of schools and for high schools with high dropout rates, districts will work with teachers and other staff members to come up with an evidence-based plan for improvement. States will monitor the turnaround efforts.

If a school continues to founder, the state will be required to step in with its own plan after more than four years. The state could take control of the school, fire the principal, turn the school into a charter, or do something else entirely.

Districts could also allow for public school choice that enables students to transfer out of seriously low-performing schools, but they have to give priority to the students who need it most.

In a school where specific groups of students are struggling, the school must come up with an evidence-based plan to help the particular group of students falling behind, such as students of different races or those in special education. If the school continues to fall short, the district must step in, though there’s no specified timeline. States and districts can also come up with a “comprehensive improvement plan” in schools where certain groups are chronically underperforming despite local interventions.

States can set aside up to 7 percent of all their federal Title I money for school improvement, up from 4 percent in the previous version of the law.


States still have to test students in reading and math every year in grades 3-8 on once in high school, and break down the resulting data for whole schools, plus for different subgroups of students. ESSA maintains the federal requirement for 95 percent student participation in tests.

States are prohibited from combining different sets of students into so-called “super subgroups” for accountability purposes.

Up to seven states can apply to try out local tests for a limited time, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Districts can use nationally recognized tests at the high school level, with state permission, such as the SAT or ACT.

States can create their own testing opt-out laws, and states decide what should happen in schools that miss targets.


Well, that’s it folks! The Feds have managed to take all the things they wished for under NCLB and make them state responsibilities under ESSA.  Notice, also, that they are promising to take revenge on schools where parents opt-out too many students from testing.

To me it looks like nothing will be better for states or schools under ESSA than it was before. And the assumption that our schools are far worse and our students far less competent than those in other countries still prevails among policy makers. They can’t admit—even to themselves—that their real goal is to have our international test scores be higher than Singapore’s the next time around.

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