ESSA Moves Education Forward, but NCLB Shouldn’t be Completely Left Behind

Kerry Belodoff, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

In a bipartisan effort that President Obama called a “Christmas miracle,” the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed in mid-December after eight years of delay, replacing the muchmaligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. ESSA marks a considerable shift in authority over education, providing states and districts much more flexibility (from defining school success to how they use federal funds), and limiting the federal government’s power to regulate state systems. The new flexibility offers states the opportunity to leave behind some of the rigid elements of NCLB and the Obama Administration’s waivers, but opens the door for lax accountability and increased inequity. States need to preserve NCLB’s emphasis on accountability, but use ESSA’s flexibility to build strong systems that embrace more innovative and tailored approaches for achieving educational progress and equity.

NCLB – A Primer

George W. Bush signed NCLB in 2001 marking an ambitious commitment by the federal government to increase educational equity and end what Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations.” NCLB decreed that, by 2014, 100% of students would perform at grade level. NCLB established strict accountability systems — monitored through high-stakes testing — and enhanced federal oversight for states. At the end of the NCLB era, 34% of eighth grade students are performing at or above proficient on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (up approximately 2% from pre-NCLB levels in 1998), with the most recent assessment suggesting score decreases for blacks, Hispanics, and students with disabilities. Clearly,  NCLB’s prescriptive one-size-fits-all fixes and the increase in accountability testing did not achieve the law’s goals.  NCLB did, however, make several monumental changes that states should not completely abandon, including  raising the bar for education quality, strengthening transparency, and catalyzing change in the nation’s lowest performing schools.

Embracing Innovation while Preserving Accountability under ESSA

NCLB set an ambitious goal for achievement: all students would achieve proficiency in reading and math. Under ESSA, states need to be ambitious yet practical in setting goals,  keeping in mind what really needs to be done to move the needle for all students. Then, states need to consider how they are measuring progress towards these goals. While the new law requires the same amount of testing as its predecessor,  it eases sanctions, such as requiring school choice or limiting uses for federal funds, associated with low test scores. It also allows states to set a limit on the amount of time students spend on testing and grants them more flexibility in choosing assessments. ESSA requires test scores, in addition to four other indicators (graduation rates, English language proficiency, student growth, and at least one other measure of school success, such as safety or engagement), to be included in how states measure the success of schools.

This flexibility, however, should not be abused. While ESSA was being finalized, some states states were already attempting to ease measures, such as Illinois enacting a system in which 70% of school ratings are based on non-academic measures such as “professional practices” and “atmosphere.” While non-academic measures are important,  overemphasizing them can hide low graduation rates, dismal achievement scores, and high inequity. States need to ensure  they focus on outcomes that are directly related to preparing students for college and careers, as well as those that shed light on equity.  

By requiring accountability measures to be publicly reported by demographic subgroups, NCLB pointed a spotlight at the atrocious achievement gaps impacting low income and minority students. ESSA maintains the requirement to disaggregate and report data by subgroup, but eases most of the punitive sanctions, school closing, and restructuring requirements. While states need to identify and intervene in schools where a subgroup consistently underperforms, education advocates, parents, and other stakeholders need to be diligent in reviewing state data and call for action when the state is not progressing or failing to meet the needs of specific groups.

Finally, states now have greater  flexibility in the interventions they adopt to address failing schools and low student achievement. We’ve learned from NCLB that not all struggling schools will benefit from the same prescriptive fixes, such as replacing all school staff or having the state takeover school operations. States should use this flexibility to tailor interventions by involving local stakeholders in improvement plans, and implementing evidence-based practices to lift achievement.

In this new era of education it’s important to remember why NCLB was conceived in the first place: public education, with little accountability, was failing our children and widening achievement gaps. While overly prescriptive, punitive, and stifling, NCLB’s emphasis on accountability and ambitious standards should not expire with the law.  With ESSA, states now have an opportunity to make innovative and urgent reforms to accountability and to strengthen their education systems in order to graduate more students ready to succeed in college and the workforce.

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