A Critical Analysis of ESSA

In 2015, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed both houses of Congress in an usually swift 10 days. As the successor of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ESSA aims to address school accountability and the achievement gap, but this time through a different pipeline: states.

Under NCLB, schools were held accountable to their test scores—schools that continuously failed state tests faced severe consequences: decreased funding, charter takeovers, layoffs, or school closure. Under ESSA however, states are now given the authority to decide how school quality should be measured, how schools within districts compare to one another, and how to improve "failing" schools. The legislation specifies which schools must be targeted for improvement - those schools which stand at the bottom 5% of school performance (as determined by the state) and schools that graduate less than 67% of their students.

State Testing
While NCLB imposed strict state testing schedules, ESSA offers states the flexibility to choose when and how to administer tests as well as how to provide tests that more accurately capture student knowledge. However, there are no specific guidelines for states to follow in determining how to utilize tests and no measures of state accountability to ensure the effectiveness of their efforts.

Common Core
Although the Common Core (CC) curriculum was not specifically included in NCLB (simply because it emerged years after NCLB's passing) the Obama administration incentivized schools to adopt the curriculum through monetary rewards provided by the Race to the Top initiative. However, as national debate erupted over the unethical and ineffective standardization tactics of CC, ESSA has stated that measures should not be taken by the Department of Education to incentive schools to adopt the method. However, ESSA requires schools to display the same achievement in college and career readiness, literacy and numeracy standards as proposed by the Common Core. Thus, although states may opt to approach these goals in different ways, the Common Core would still appeal as the best way to meet these requirement.  

The ambiguity of ESSA is the factor that will make or break the legislation. Ideally, states would utilize this autonomy to provide more equity to students across local school districts. At worst, states will take advantage of ESSA’s decreased oversight and promote the privatization of the nation's public school system. It is vital that we read in between the lines of education legislation and continue to examine their results in practice. Although the ambiguity of ESSA may have been thought to increase state initiative and creativity in approaching education, it can very easily provide the opposite effect by not keeping states accountable enough.