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What is ESSA, and why should I care?

October 12, 2016 | Filed in Top Stories

Feds loosen their grip on education policy, opening the door to local innovation

Understanding ESSA logoAfter President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law in December 2015, Dr. Bill Daggett, Founder and Chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education, told a group of HFM BOCES leaders that the second most frequently used word in the new legislation – after the word ‘the’ – was innovation.

According to Daggett, the door of opportunity has been opened through ESSA for states to think outside of the box, to take bold, non-traditional steps toward improved learning for all students. In fact, ESSA represents an unprecedented turnaround of federal control of education policy, releasing it back to the states.

Designed to “fix” No Child Left Behind, ESSA gained bipartisan support for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and replaces NCLB as the federal oversight legislation for education.

ESSA maintains much of the standards-based language of NCLB, including annual assessments, accountability measures, and systems to support low performing schools. However, ESSA separates itself by giving the states authority to design these systems instead of the federal Education Department.

ESSA requires states to implement “challenging standards” for language arts, math and science, but specifically prohibits the U.S. Secretary of Education from dictating or advocating what those standards may be. States may choose to use Common Core State Standards, but they don’t have to.

To help determine the best response to ESSA’s guiding principles, the New York State Department of Education convened a Think Tank, inviting more than 100 organizations to provide feedback on ESSA and define Characteristics of Highly Effective Schools. This list defines the goal for New York’s ESSA Plan, which must face public scrutiny and a series of developmental meetings in October hosted by BOCES around the state.

The invitation-only meetings will convene representative groups, including students, to discuss the main concepts under consideration for the state’s ESSA plan. Feedback from these meetings will be summarized and presented to the Board of Regents, who will post a draft plan for public comment in November. At the end of the public comment period, the Regents will revise the plan based on the feedback it receives and present it to the Governor. The deadline to submit the final ESSA State Plan to the U.S. Department of Education is March 7, 2017.

Stakeholders in HFM BOCES component schools will meet Tuesday, Oct. 25 for this region’s developmental meeting. Hosted by HFM BOCES and facilitated by District Superintendent Dr. Patrick Michel, the meeting will help determine the path education policy takes in New York State for the next five years.

According to Daggett, looking five years down the road is exactly what school districts should be doing.

“The most rapidly improving schools have a growth mindset; they are future focused,” Daggett told the Mohawk Sacandaga School Boards Association in May 2016. “You need to drive a stake in the ground five years out and build backwards.

Daggett said NCLB and Common Core Learning Standards “doubled down” on the past. ESSA cracks open possibilities to create the future-focused schools needed to prepare students for careers and college.

ESSA in a nutshell

When Congress finally passed a bill replacing No Child Left Behind, reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the resulting Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) significantly loosened federal control over education policy making. While many accountability measures remain in place, states now have greater flexibility and control over how they measure student performance, determine teacher quality and support their low-performing schools.

  • ESSA takes full effect in the 2017-18 school year, but New York State Education Department, BOCES and school districts around the state are working now to develop the state’s new accountability plan. The plan may be submitted to the U. S. Department of Education by March 6, 2017 or July 5, 2017.
  • ESSA requires states to adopt “challenging” academic standards, but stops short of mandating a specific set of standards. States may choose to use Common Core State Standards, but they don’t have to. The U.S. Secretary of Education may not force or advocate any particular set of standards on the state.
  • States must demonstrate that their standards are aligned with entrance requirements for the state colleges and universities and with state career and technical education standards.
  • Students will still be tested in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and ESSA maintains the federal requirement for 95 percent participation. The data will measure whole schools and different subgroups of students (students in poverty, minorities, special education students, English learners). ESSA provides more flexibility in the types of assessments states may use. School districts may use locally selected, nationally recognized high school assessments in place of the state-determined test for math, English language arts and science. Special criteria apply for approval of locally selected assessments. The legislation also allows states to develop and use computer-adaptive assessments at all grade levels for math, ELA and science. These exams adjust the difficulty of questions during an exam based on a student’s response.
  • For teacher evaluation, NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” rating is gone from ESSA. ESSA requires all teachers to meet applicable state certification and licensing requirements. However, districts must ensure that “poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.”
  • In developing new accountability systems, states still have to submit their plans to the Education Department. However, under ESSA, states determine their own goals, with some “guardrails” provided by the legislation. ESSA requires them to address testing proficiency, English language proficiency and graduation rates. Also, states must put in place goals for closing the achievement gap for those students who are furthest behind. States must include at least four factors in their accountability systems. For elementary and middle schools, proficiency on state tests, English language proficiency and a third academic factor that can be broken out by a subgroup must be included. At the high school level, graduation rates take the place of the extra academic factor.
  • However, all levels need to include a new additional indicator. ESSA asks districts to choose an indicator of School Quality or Student Success from a broad list of possible measures, including such things as student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, school climate and safety and postsecondary readiness. The data from this indicator, whichever the state chooses, must be able to be broken down by subgroup. States can decide how much each indicator counts, although academic factors must count “much more” as a group than the new SQSS indicator.
  • ESSA requires states to identify and intervene in the bottom 5% of school district performers, where high school graduation rates drop below 67% and in schools where subgroups are struggling. The difference from NCLB is that states now can devise their own evidence-based support plans.
  • The federal School Improvement Grant Program has been consolidated into Title I, which helps districts educate students in poverty. ESSA requires states to reserve up to 7 percent of Title I funds to support low performing schools
  • English language learners are a priority under ESSA’s new regulations. Depending how long a students have been in the country, scores are included in schools’ assessment results. In the first year, ELLs need to take the assessments, but their scores won’t count toward a school’s rating. In the second year, states need to use some measurement of growth to include the score in the overall score. By the third year, ELL scores are treated like any other student’s.

Additional detail about the Every Student Succeeds Act may be found in the Education Commission of the States publication ESSA: Quick guides on top issues. (http://www.ecs.org/essa-quick-guides-on-top-issues/)