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ESSA: What it changes for educators

How much change occurs will depend directly on each state’s legislative actions

By revamping the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law of 2001 with the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, the federal government gives states more control over their own school accountability standards.

Under ESSA, lawmakers maintained annual NCLB testing. But teachers’ unions had sought to eliminate the “highly qualified teachers” provision, which ESSA did.

It’s a significant improvement over current law, says Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of policy & advocacy for the AASA, The School Superintendent’s Association.

How much change occurs will depend directly on each state’s legislative actions, she adds. “Some states will not make changes, while some will completely overhaul,” Ellerson says.

ESSA allows states to add non-academic measures to their school accountability systems, such as climate or teacher surveys. It may be a while before changes impact classroom instruction, as districts feel out new evidence-based instructional practices and PD.

ESSA also allows states to develop alternative standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities, and leaves it up to states to determine how those standards would be measured, says David Griffith, senior director of government relations for ASCD.

ESSA enables states to determine how to measure educators’ effectiveness, which means whether “they are getting students to learn,” Ellerson says.

Testing prevails—with exceptions

Annual testing in grades 3 through 8 remains, followed by a single test in high school established under NCLB. But ESSA allows states the option of either using a single summative assessment to meet the annual requirement or to replace it with multiple interim assessments throughout the school year that yield a summative score.

And states do not rely solely on the state-adopted standardized tests, like PARCC and Smarter Balanced, but can give alternative tests for high school. While states must still ensure 95 percent of public school students participate in testing, ESSA does authorize them to allow parents to opt their children out.

ESSA allows greater flexibility for using federal funds, like Title I, for school improvement initiatives, Griffith says.

But Ellerson adds that every state has higher standards now, due to NCLB. “Do you want students getting A’s on bad standards or B’s on good standards?” she says.