“Yes, but…” An ESSA Myth Buster

Businessman concept; choose Fact or Myth road the correct way.

By Samantha Tankersley
Across all 50 states, conversations on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are intensifying.
Kentucky is holding a series of town hall meetings; North Carolina has planned six public input sessions; other states like Oregon have established ESSA working groups.
As policy makers, advocates and other stakeholders come to the table to debate how their states will take advantage of the opportunities and address the challenges brought by ESSA, distinguishing fact from fiction has become increasingly difficult—and more important than ever. Are teacher evaluations over? Who is really in charge now—the federal government, states or districts? How much freedom do states have to change their assessment systems? Are parents now allowed to opt their students out of standardized tests?
We at The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) understand that murkiness surrounds ESSA, especially as we await regulations from the U.S. Department of Education. But there is certainty around some issues. The following five “yes, but…” statements attempt to explain the nuances around five common misconceptions.
For additional details, remember to check out our summary, a breakdown of what to expect from ESSA and the top changes in the bill.

1. Yes, there has been a shift in authority over most education policy decisions from the federal to state level, BUT this shift is not absolute. Without a doubt, ESSA shifts a ton of authority to the states through more flexible funding and more freedom around assessments and school ratings and interventions. Plus, the law places substantial restrictions on the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Education.
But it is most certainly not “open season” for states. Among other requirements, ESSA maintains that states must: annually assess students; create challenging academic standards; implement a school rating system that includes certain indicators; enhance reporting requirements; and identify and intervene in low-performing schools.
2. Yes, ESSA preserves annual assessment, BUT states are given the opportunity to audit, streamline and innovate their assessment system. States must continue to assess students in reading and math, annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as well as in science at least once in grades 3-5, at least once in grades 6-9 and at least once in grades 10-12. But, ESSA also provides states with several ways to move to fewer, better tests.
For example, states may apply for a federal grant to fund an audit of their assessment system. In addition, the law gives states opportunity for innovation by clarifying that states can use computer adaptive assessments, and that tests may be administered as a single test or as a set of interim tests that can be rolled up into a single annual result for each student as long as validity, reliability and comparability are demonstrated.
ESSA also creates the Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority, which allows the Secretary to run a pilot for states to experiment with new, innovative ways to assess students and incorporate the results into their accountability systems. Some examples include competency-based assessments, interim assessments or cumulative year-end assessment.
3. Yes, ESSA preserves the requirement that states test 95 percent of students, BUT states determine the consequences for schools that fail to meet that requirement. Without a doubt, ESSA’s opt-out provisions require a bit of explanation. Like under previous versions of the law, ESSA requires that states test at least 95 percent of students overall and within each subgroup, and leaves it up to states to determine whether individual parents are legally permitted to opt their students out of assessments.
What’s new is that states now determine the consequences for schools that fail to meet the 95 percent requirement. In the past, the consequences (automatic identification for improvement) were dictated by federal law.
4. Yes, ESSA gives states greater flexibility to direct federal funds to state-determined priorities, BUT districts often have the final say. In general, under ESSA, federal funds can be used more flexibly. For example, Congress has combined around 50 discreet programs into a $1.6 billion* block grant (states will receive an allocation in proportion to its funding under Title I). To receive their allocation of the block grant funds, districts must submit an application to the state describing the programs and activities they will carry out in the following three categories: well-rounded educational opportunities; safe and healthy students; and effective use of technology.
So while the state must provide approval upfront, districts will have significant control over how and where these dollars are spent. Similarly, under ESSA, states can opt to reserve up to three percent of their Title I allotment to make competitive awards to districts to provide “Direct Student Services” (such as supplemental courses, course access and tutoring or public school choice). States will establish the application process and could attempt to shape which services their districts support, but 99 percent of the funds must be distributed to districts serving the highest number of schools identified for comprehensive and then targeted support and improvement.
*Note: The grant programs that were rolled into this block grant only received appropriations of $400 million in fiscal year 2016.
5. Yes, ESSA eliminates the teacher evaluation system required under waivers, BUT states can choose to continue or refine their systems. When states sought waivers to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the U.S. Department of Education required that, in return, states adopt teacher evaluations that met Department requirements, including being based in part on student performance data. ESSA ends these federal requirements for teacher evaluations.
Now states have to opportunity to take ownership of their teacher evaluation systems, though ExcelinEd encourages states to continue to take student performance data into account when evaluating and supporting their teaching force.

For more, see:

Samantha Tankersley serves as Policy Coordinator for The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd). Follow ExcelinEd on Twitter @ExcelinEd.

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