Navigating the Every Student Succeeds Act: With ESSA, More Equitable Assessment Brings Hope for Parity

In December of 2015 the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was signed into law as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The last reauthorization was in 2001 when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law. While ESSA maintains some of the core aspects of NCLB such as statewide assessments, accountability, and state report cards, it attempts to address some of the problems associated with NCLB and shifts more control to the state and districts.

ESSA requires state accountability plans to include five indicators:

  1. Proficiency in reading and math
  2. Graduation rates for high schools
  3. English language proficiency
  4. For elementary and middle schools, student growth or another indicator that is valid, reliable and statewide
  5. At least one other indicator of school quality or success, such as measures of safety, student engagement, or educator engagement

If you’re interested in a deep dive on all aspects of ESSA, CCSSO and ECS have provided excellent resources. In terms of statewide accountability, there are three changes that I am most excited and optimistic about with the hope of improving on NCLB:

  1. Clearer distinction between “status” vs. growth”
  2. Permission to utilize computer adaptive testing (CAT)
  3. A measure of school quality or student success (SQSS)

In the 670-page text of NCLB, “achievement,” “progress,” “learning,” “growth,” “development,” “performance,” and “proficiency,” appeared over 1,600 times interchangeably, with no distinction between status and growth. In the 449-page text of ESSA, “achievement,” “progress,” “learning,” “growth,” “development,” “performance,” and “proficiency,” appeared over 800 times. But ESSA does make a distinction between status and growth.

Why the Distinction Between Status and Growth Matters
Focusing on growth over status provides a more accurate picture of the whole student and his or her accomplishments—not simply a result of a particular testing day. All stakeholders in K–12 education, from policy folks to parents, should be interested in these dual concepts. ESSA does a much better job of delineating this distinction.

Leveling the Field with Computer Adaptive Testing
A second change that I think can improve the quality of our assessments centers upon CAT. Historically, statewide assessments have given the same fixed form grade-level assessment to every student. For example, every 3rd grade student in the state would be given the same exact questions. ESSA requires that the same test is administered to all students in each grade but under CAT the test items vary based on the student’s answer. You can think of a CAT as an interactive experience in which students receive easier or harder items based on their performance. Since fixed form grade-level tests contain mostly items geared toward the average level of students at that grade level, student ability at the tails (low and high) are not as well measured.

How Does Your State Define School Quality and Student Success?
The “fifth” indicator, SQSS, is explicit recognition that test scores alone do not capture everything that is important in schools. As states submit and receive approval of their ESSA plans it will be very interesting to see what types of variables are selected and how creative different states are in capturing important SQSS indicators. ESSA suggested possible measures such as student engagement, educator engagement, student access to and completion of advanced courses, postsecondary readiness, and school climate. And as mentioned earlier, with more state flexibility under ESSA, states may come up with other possibilities. There is much to learn from these varied measures of school quality and student success and how selected indicators will satisfy the demands of reliability and validity within an accountability framework.

Overall I am excited about the ESSA requirements and guidance. We have come a long way since President Lyndon Johnson signed the ESEA in 1965. And as we embark on this new ESSA incarnation of ESEA, the hopes expressed by President Johnson are as relevant today as ever:

As a former teacher—and, I hope, a future one—I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all of our young people. As President of the United States, I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America. To each and every one who contributed to this day, the nation is indebted. On Tuesday afternoon we will ask the members of the House and Senate who were instrumental in guiding this legislation through the Congress to meet with us at a reception in the White House. So it is not the culmination but only the commencement of this journey. Let me urge, as Thomas Jefferson urged his fellow countrymen one time to, and I quote, ‘Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.’ We have established the law. Let us not delay in putting it to work.
President Lyndon Johnson, 1965

What indicators of SQSS has your state selected in its ESSA submission? Share your feedback in the comments section and keep the conversation going!

Visit our ESSA section for useful guidance and details on how HMH can support your district with equity, evidence, and efficacy.