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What’s Up with ESSA?

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the country’s oldest national education law dedicated to providing equal opportunity to all students. ESSA scales back much of the federal government’s role in public education on everything from testing and teacher quality to low-performing schools. Under ESSA, states do have greater flexibility, but they still are required to submit ESSA plans to the Department of Education (DOE) for approval.

The deadline for submitting ESSA plans to the DOE was last year. By October 2018, all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had their ESSA plans approved. States are now in the process of implementing them. How are the plans that require changing policies on curriculum, assessment, and accountability playing out at the local level? What are the implications for publishers?

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How ESSA Works

The main role of ESSA is to scale back much of the federal government’s role in public education. ESSA aims to reduce the authority of the DOE when it comes to standards, assessments, school turnarounds, teacher evaluation, and other areas. Under ESSA, more accountability and decision-making is allowed at the state and local levels to encourage innovation while increasing accountability for low-performing schools. States will now have significant leeway in setting student achievement goals and gauging school performance via indicators other than test scores.

Under ESSA, nearly 50 programs—including school counseling, education technology, and advanced placement—have been consolidated into one giant block grant worth $1.6 billion. Districts receiving more than $30,000 from this grant are required to spend at least 20% on at least one program that promotes a “well-rounded education,” and another 20% on at least one program that promotes student health and safety. Part of the grant money can also be spent on education technology.

Some other key elements of ESSA:

  • States must develop accountability systems that incorporate at least four indicators of success.
  • States still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
  • ESSA maintains the federal requirement for 95% participation in tests.
  • States can create their own testing opt-out laws.
  • States are required to adopt “challenging” academic standards, but they are not required to use the Common Core State Standards.
  • Accountability for English language learners (ELLs) is a priority.

State Accountability Plans

The ESSA plan that every state is required to submit to the DOE has to address:

  • long-term goals
  • how schools will be graded
  • academic indicators that will be used to grade schools
  • the size of subgroups that will be measured
  • testing opt-out laws

Though it is too early to determine the effectiveness of ESSA plans at the local level, a review of the state plans shows that tracking student attendance and absenteeism is a popular metric of school quality and that states are using a broad range of approaches to grade schools. Many districts and school systems are focused on providing more differentiated and personalized solutions.

KnowledgeWorks has developed an infographic on how state ESSA plans are advancing personalized learning. They found that 39 states reference personalized learning in their ESSA plan.

Some key data from the infographic:

  • Seventeen states incorporate personalized learning into their vision for ESSA implementation.
  • Eleven states will prioritize learning strategies for supporting schools identified for improvement.
  • Nineteen states will ensure that all students have a personalized learning plan that aligns with their academic needs, interests, and goals.

Under ESSA, we could see an overall redefinition of what constitutes an assessment of student knowledge due to added flexibility and funding for “innovative assessment pilots.” The increase in accountability for ELLs is also putting a spotlight on how ELLs are assessed by teachers in the classroom. ELL assessments should be designed to disentangle the effects of language proficiency on content knowledge.

Impact on Publishers

ESSA is creating disruption in the educational marketplace as states adapt to the new law and implement their plans. Also, there are concerns about whether the streamlining of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) that oversees the implementation of ESSA is negatively impacting states’ ability to put their plans into practice. OESE staff has been cut 14% since the start of the new administration, and some state officials have reported long waits to have their questions about ESSA answered.

This means that learning companies and publishers have to be adaptable and flexible as they try to figure out the needs of students and educators under the new law and how best to meet those needs. The big question will be the role and substance of instructional materials, as schools integrate new learning approaches to meet new standards, explore personalized learning initiatives, and transition to digital technology in the classroom.


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