What is ESEA?
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was originally passed as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s War on Poverty campaign.
The original goal of the law, which remains today, was to improve educational equity for students from lower-income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving poor students.
Typically, these school districts receive less state and local funding than those serving more affluent children. Why? Usually because local property taxes are typically the primary funding source for schools, and property values are much lower in poorer areas.
ESEA is the single largest source of federal spending on elementary and secondary education. In return for these taxpayer dollars, states and districts must show that they’re working to meet the needs and providing a quality education to all of their students. When education policy folks talk about accountability, this is what they mean.
What is Every Student Succeeds or ESSA?
ESEA has been reauthorized eight times since 1965, most recently in December of 2015 when lawmakers revamped No Child Left Behind and renamed it the Every Student Succeeds Act. Each reauthorization brought changes to the program. Despite the changes, its central goal remains: improving the educational opportunities and outcomes for children from lower-income families.
Wait… are you saying ESSA is ESEA?
And No Child Left Behind was ESEA before that?
You got it.
So giving states money for schools, if they meet ESEA requirements, holds states accountable for protecting children?
Why do we need ESEA and federal education accountability at all?
Before the federal government started requiring states to test every student (almost) every year as a condition of receiving ESEA money, there wasn’t enough data to tell how specific groups of students were performing. States were able to just look at the average scores and assume everything was okay.
With results from annual testing, though, it was possible to look deeper into how different groups of students were performing. This subgroup reporting, as it’s called, made it obvious that the under-achievement of the most vulnerable students had been masked in the old system of reporting. African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, English-language learners, students with disabilities and many others were being left out or left behind because schools were not held accountable for their individual progress and growth.
Federal requirements and expectations in ESEA provide transparency and oversight on states and districts to ensure that there are protections for these vulnerable students, schools, and communities. This provides and targets additional services and support they need to succeed.
After decades of inequities, neglect, and inaction at the state level, this law is designed to help states meet their commitments to protect the interests of these children and communities.
Transparency and accountability—those are crucial pieces to addressing achievement gaps. We can’t fix the problem if we can’t see it.
What does the law actually do?
In exchange for receiving billions in federal funds each year (money that goes to states and then districts by a formula based in part on the number of students living in poverty), states agree to track the progress of schools and districts, step in and support them when needed, and show that the money is being used to support these students.
While ESSA covers a lot of ground, it’s the law’s requirements for annual testing, accountability, and school improvement that receive the most attention. Let’s look at those:
Annual testing. ESSA requires states to test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States must also test kids in science once during elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. They can use their own state test, or a nationally recognized test like the SAT or ACT. The law also encourages states to get rid of unnecessary testing and provides funds for them to audit their current situation (i.e., how many tests are required at the state, district, and school level, which are redundant, etc.)
States have to measure school performance based on several factors—some academic and at least one non-academic factor that gets at “school quality.” They’ll look at test scores to see how many students are on grade level for reading and math, how many students are showing growth (even if they’re not quite on grade level), how non-native English speakers are progressing in their grasp of the language, and high school graduation rates. The non-academic factor or factors can be whatever states want (it doesn’t even have to be supported by research), but a lot of states appear to be leaning toward things like chronic absenteeism, school safety, parent or student engagement surveys, etc. The academic factors have to be given a greater “weight” or priority over non-academic factors in the school’s overall rating. In other words, student achievement and growth scores can’t count for the same amount as chronic absenteeism, for example.
Based on the overall performance of a school, looking at all of these factors, states must identify the schools that are struggling the most, the bottom 5 percent, and provide comprehensive support—however a state wants to define that is up to them, but it’s the highest level of support. Schools that don’t fit into the bottom 5 percent, but have subgroups of students (e.g., black, Hispanic, low-income, etc.) who are struggling will be identified for “targeted support.” Targeted support is also defined by each state, but it’s one step down from the most comprehensive support states will give the schools struggling the most.
How is Every Student Succeeds different from No Child Left Behind?
Under No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2002, schools were required to meet yearly progress goals that eventually had 100 percent of all kids on grade level by 2014.
That sounded great, but everyone soon realized it wasn’t realistic. The penalties for not making enough progress each year were severe and some argued they hurt struggling schools that needed funding the most. Some states applied for waivers from the federal government which allowed them to avoid some of the consequences if they promised to innovate and hold themselves accountable in other ways. Other states lowered their standards and made standardized tests easier so they could increase scores. They could do this because states were allowed to determine what was meant by “proficient.”
No Child Left Behind also didn’t give schools any credit for schools helping kids make academic growth. For example, if a fifth grader who was reading at a second-grade level finished the year reading at a fourth-grade level, the school wouldn’t get any credit for that, even though it helped this child make remarkable growth. Testing on grade level was the holy grail.
The Every Student Succeeds Act fixed a lot of those problems. Specifically, it gave states a lot more flexibility to set their own goals and their own consequences for schools that didn’t reach those goals. It emphasized students’ academic growth, not just whether they’re on grade level. It also gave states freedom to use other nationally recognized tests to replace their statewide standardized test.
What does ESSA say about Common Core?
Not much. Mostly that the federal government can’t try to compel states to use the Common Core State Standards or any other set of standards. The law just requires states set “challenging” standards in math, reading and science.
So, is ESEA working?
While we still have a long way to go, especially with closing the achievement gaps, we are making real progress.
According to a national test that’s given every year (called NAEP), both 4th- and 8th-grade students showed improved math scores between 2011 and 2013, but dipped slightly in 2015. Reading scores in 2015 basically stayed the same for 4th graders and were slightly lower for 8th Overall, there have been gains in both subjects since the early 1990s.
Math scores for Hispanic students across cities, states, and nationwide have increased significantly over the past ten years, and this increase reflects a steady trend.
High school graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83 percent, though the evidence here isn’t bulletproof. Higher graduation rates certainly reflect some improvement, but there are also examples of inflated scores, or lowering graduation requirements.
The bottom line is this: To know if all these efforts are working, we have to have a way to track how all students are doing—including all the subgroups and vulnerable populations.
Right now, annual testing, combined with other measures like graduation rates, surveys, college readiness measures, etc., is one of the best ways we, as a society, know how to do that.