May/June 2016

Explaining ESSA: Federal update spotlights local governance

By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is the editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) made headlines late last year for leaving behind No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Both acts are revisions to, and reauthorizations of, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has guided the federal government’s role in public education since 1965.

NCLB, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, promised lofty standards — and the means to reach them — to all students regardless of status or demographics. It promised additional federal financial support where needed and emphasized holding schools accountable. But what sounded good in theory proved unworkable in practice. Over time, NCLB’s high-stakes testing proved inefficient and Annual Yearly Progress proved punitive instead of aspirational. Standards lowered instead of rising. Achievement did not increase. NCLB ultimately failed because universal proficiency proved both impossible and de-motivational.

Additionally, NCLB was a political hot potato, considered an overreach of the federal government into the traditionally state and local issue of public education.

Although ESSA signals an end to NCLB, most states had already been steering a course away from NCLB, or at least gaining flexibility from its strictures through a waiver program initiated in 2011. Illinois received its waiver in 2014.

So now arrives the much-heralded ESSA, a bipartisan effort signed into law by President Barack Obama in December. Although full implementation and impact are yet to come, one thing is clear: ESSA will mean less federal oversight and greater state and local governance of education policy. ESSA puts the use of federal education funds in the hands of the states as well, by combining previous line-item programs into block grants.

These changes also say good-bye to AYP and the term “highly qualified.” ESSA eliminates federally mandated progress and performance benchmarks and interventions. It reduces the federal role in defining teacher quality. States are now charged with creating their own accountability models, and the federal role in determining interventions is much more limited than under NCLB.

ESSA states, “Each State plan shall describe a statewide accountability system that … shall be based on the challenging State academic standards for reading or language arts and mathematics … to improve student academic achievement and school success.”

In Illinois, an accountability model was signed into law in 2015. Originating in a Vision 20/20 initiative, the Illinois Balanced Accountability Model combines student performance (achievement and growth) at 30 percent with district practice (compliance, best practices, and contextual evidence) at 70 percent. ESSA is expected to require changes to those percentages, and will allow accountability measures based on local practice.

“District practice is a critical component of accountability,” said IASB Executive Director Roger Eddy. “Compliance is meeting mandates. Best practices is how well we’re adhering to research-based standards. Contextual evidence — which is so important — allows districts to tell their story, to be measured on what they are doing, with their specific challenges and opportunities, that’s good for the students and their communities.”

However, ESSA requires the state plan to include accountability via three academic measures, among them annual assessments, graduation rates, English language proficiency, and subgroup factors. Also, ESSA will require a non-academic factor, such as college and career readiness, school climate, student engagement, or educator engagement.

ESSA doesn’t change the requirement for annual standardized testing. Students will be tested in language arts and math from third grade through eighth, and again in high school. The details — which tests to give and when — will be determined by the states. Although it allows states to develop their own opt-out laws for testing, ESSA maintains the expectation of 95 percent participation.

Two options will be available for English Language Learners ( ELLs) under ESSA. One extends the current plan, which requires standardized testing after one year of residency. The other is an improvement model, under which ELLs would take both English and math assessments, but they would not count towards a school’s performance rating in the first year and would be a growth measurement in subsequent years.

Additionally, states can determine the role of testing in teacher evaluations. Illinois is implementing its Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), which requires all Illinois districts to implement standards-based principal and teacher evaluation systems, including student growth indicators.

ESSA will require each state — based on its accountability plan — to identify, intervene with, and monitor progress of the bottom five percent of schools, as well as high schools with lower than 67 percent graduation rates and schools with unacceptable achievement gaps between subgroups.

ESSA does not allow for the portability of Title I funds, so Title I funds will stay with the school district rather than follow students who transfer. However, a weighted student funding formula — allowing transferring of federal funds within a district — may be allowed.

Discussions continue at the state and federal levels regarding the implementation of ESSA. The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) established a negotiated rulemaking committee with meetings first scheduled in March. Designed to address the issues of assessment and “supplement-not-supplant,” the committee of education stakeholders is editing USDOE’s drafts of new regulations. Among the key issues in the early meetings were including English Language Learners and those with cognitive disabilities in the assessments. USDOE is also holding stakeholder meetings, disseminating information on imminent deadlines and flexibilities available under NCLB until ESSA takes full effect.

ESSA indicates that many stakeholders must be consulted in defining the state’s plan:

“For any State desiring to receive a grant under this part, the State educational agency shall file with the Secretary a plan that is … developed by the State educational agency with timely and meaningful consultation with the Governor, members of the State legislature and State board of education … local educational agencies (including those located in rural areas), representatives of Indian tribes located in the State, teachers, principals, other school leaders, charter school leaders … specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, administrators, other staff, and parents.”

In Illinois, the state board of education opened the state’s ESSA discussion with a statewide listening tour to provide overview information on ESSA and allow interested individuals to share their ideas on implementation.

Eddy encouraged school board members to be among the stakeholders whose voices will be heard.

“We want to support the position that district practice is a critical and large component of accountability,” Eddy said. “Our schools are much more than student performance on assessments.”

Alphabet soup

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law in late 2015, is a reauthorization and update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has guided the federal government’s role in public education since 1965. The previous version, NCLB, was adopted in 2002.

The newly authorized ESEA is 391 pages long, with cross-references to many other federal laws and regulations. ESEA is the sum of its nine parts, or titles, each of which changed with the adoption of ESSA:

Title I: Improving Basic Programs Operated By State and Local Educational Agencies

Title II: Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High-Quality Teachers, Principals, or Other School Leaders

Title III: Language Instruction for English Learners and Immigrant Students

Title IV: 21st Century Schools

Title V: State Innovation and Local Flexibility

Title VI: Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education

Title VII: Impact Aid

Title VIII:   General Provisions

Title IX: Education for the Homeless and Other Laws

The full text of ESEA is at