Every Student Succeeds Act Hands Education Back to States and Reduces Impact of High-Stakes Testing

President Obama is expected to sign the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) today, a bill that passed by a substantial bipartisan margin in both the House and Senate.

A thousand pages of text boil down to one large-scale change: ESSA reduces the role of the federal government in K–12 public schools on two fronts — standards and accountability.

This new act amounts to a repudiation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was itself a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. NCLB established strong federal oversight of the nation’s public schools by instituting requirements for highly-qualified teachers and measuring school achievement based on student test scores; it also held teachers and schools accountable for persistent low achievement. Those features of NCLB are precisely what ESSA is meant to undermine.

Both Sides of the Aisle Vote for ESSA

Complaints poured in from districts around the nation citing a lack of financial, physical, and personnel resources to make adequate yearly progress toward closing achievement gaps along racial, gender, and subject-based lines. President Obama and outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded with the creation of the Race to the Top grant program. School districts and states that wanted additional resources to help meet the goals set by NCLB could apply for federal funds to (a) transform a school by strengthening the staff, (b) turn around a school by replacing 50 percent of the staff, (c) restart a school (often as a charter school), or (d) close a school.

The catch? In order to receive the funds, schools had to agree to adopt Common Core State Standards.

Conservative politicians have balked at increasing federal involvement in state educational issues since the enactment of NCLB in 2001. Democrats initially liked the equity-minded act because it made public the issue of school inequalities and held schools accountable for poor academic outcomes. But 14 years later, both sides of the aisle agree that throwing money at states to lure them into adopting federal policies has been ineffective.

In an 85–12 vote yesterday, the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, echoing the 359–62 vote in the House a week earlier and overturning the federal government’s ability to penalize failing schools and incentivize academic standards. Instead, state education agencies (SEAs) will decide how to address failing schools, including the lowest-performing five percent of schools, high schools with high dropout rates, and schools with persistent achievement gaps. The act also encourages states to limit the amount of testing and to de-emphasize test scores in teacher evaluations. States will still be required to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and once again in high school. Schools must also continue to make test scores public and track test scores by student race and disability status.

Potential Outcomes

What does this mean for students facing this year’s upcoming standardized tests?

Not much.

Because states have already purchased the tests, and created the testing and schooling schedules, the 2015–2016 academic year will be much like last year. There will likely be fewer test-preparation days, but states and districts must honor their contracts with the companies that create the tests.

Even still, families may see much happier teachers and more engaged students. With the heavy emphasis on test scores reduced in teacher evaluations, educators are now free to take pedagogical risks, be flexible in their lesson planning, and use more creative, project-based curricula. This means students will have fewer worksheets and minute drills, and more projects and presentations. The anxiety that children as young as 8 experience during testing should decrease drastically in the coming years as teachers no longer have to emphasize how important it is that students do well on their standardized tests.

There may be slight changes in the distribution of teachers across urban, suburban, and rural schools. Because teacher salaries were determined by student test scores, many have previously sought jobs in high-performing districts where they’d be more likely to get raises, promotions, and tenure. A number of teachers who worked in schools serving high populations of English language learners and low-income students transferred to wealthier schools once NCLB made clear that they might lose their jobs if students did not make huge academic gains in short periods of time. With test scores counting less, some teachers may choose to go back to schools in high-need communities.

On a macro level, education elections will become increasingly important. With educational oversight returning to the states, it is critical that voters pay attention to the educational governance structure in their state and carefully research candidates who will ultimately determine academic standards, teacher licensure requirements, and funding policies. Though Common Core State Standards and Highly Qualified Teacher Standards began to establish uniformity among states in what was being taught by whom, we should expect a shift back to more variability in state learning goals and teacher quality.

But given our complex educational system, the majority of the effects of ESSA will emerge over time. In general, it takes at least five years to see the effects of educational policies on student achievement and school functioning; so, as we did with NCLB, we must wait. In the meantime, we should consider the influence of other factors — such as the increasing presence of charter schools, and the decline of traditional teacher preparation programs — on students’ access to a high-quality education.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news, and use Noodle to ask how K–12 schools near you are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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