Signed into law in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act’s passage was heralded at the time by former President Barack Obama as a “Christmas miracle” that broke deep partisan divides in Congress.
The latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty,” replaces its Bush-era counterpart, the No Child Left Behind Act. And where NCLB issued federal accountability mandates aimed at closing achievement gaps between students across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds — particularly in math and reading — ESSA seeks to return much of the decision-making power around those efforts back to states.
With ESSA implementation underway in the new school year, here are four of its biggest impacts.
Shift of power back to states and districts
Perhaps the biggest talking point during ESSA’s passage was its return of decision-making power from the federal government to states and districts. This reining in of top-down federal mandates was precipitated by a sense that former Education Secretary Arne Duncan had wielded too much power in the role under the Obama administration, and that one-size-fits-all reform efforts couldn’t effectively address unique problems across a variety of regions and municipalities.
Some critics have expressed concern that this lessening of federal oversight would result in states “going through the motions” rather than putting substantive accountability measures in place, though all are still required to submit their accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. But thus far, the department under current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been much more critical of these plans than expected — so much so that the department has seen bipartisan concern from lawmakers that the additional freedom granted to states is being hindered.
Perhaps the most notable area in which states will have more decision-making freedom under ESSA is standardized testing. The additional agency expected under the law is intended to encourage more innovation in an environment with fewer harsh consequences if an experimental practice doesn’t work out as hoped, and also to encourage the assessment of a wider array of subjects beyond just math and reading. Critics, however, have remained concerned that the potential use of interim assessments over summative ones could undermine efforts to track results and make decisions based on that data.
According to Edutopia, some of the biggest changes under the law include the ability to use a “locally determined, nationally recognized test like the ACT or SAT” as opposed to one selected by the state, the ability to cap and potentially reduce the time students spend testing, additional funding to audit and streamline assessment systems, a pilot program for consortias of states to overhaul assessment systems and replace summative assessments with options like competency- or performance-based exams, and the ability to use computer-adaptive testing.
Funding at the federal and state level has largely not recovered since the recession — and in many cases, it has continued to decline. Under ESSA, states and districts will have more control over how they use their funding, but the law also presents new possibilities.
In addition to the extra agency in funding allocation, SmartBrief notes that ESSA could see spending priorities shift due to new or modified programs, as well as the provision of entirely new funding. Notably, the Student Support and Academic Achievement block grant has been created to streamline 50 smaller programs and distribute funding to states and districts based on Title I shares — though the funding must be used for providing well-rounded educational opportunities, student health and safety, or effective tech use.
Impact on research
In addition to direct impact on classrooms, ESSA will also affect how researchers approach their study of education. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and Center for Education Policy Research Faculty Director Thomas Kane foresees state and local studies determining impact, suggesting that states should develop a scalable impact evaluation model for districts and charter management organizations. From that, they could then use pilots to gather evidence relevant to their own stakeholders.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have also launched an “Evidence for ESSA” site around using research-based methods to choose educational intervention models. The site categorizes reading and math programs by the evidence levels they meet, and many more research-based resources are likely to pop up as states and districts acclimate to the law and hammer down the final details of their accountability plans.