Every Student Succeeds Act: What You Need To Know

February 8, 2016

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces No Child Left Behind, was signed by President Obama in early December 2015. During President Obama’s remarks on the signing of this new law, he commented that, “The goals of NCLB were the right ones: high standards, accountability, closing the achievement gap, and making sure that every child was learning. But in practice, it often fell short. It led to too much testing during classroom time and often forced school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kind of results we wanted to see” (Obama, 2015). In an effort to change some of these shortcomings and learn from what didn’t work, ESSA decreases decision making authority at the federal level while increasing the roles of states and districts. Although there will still be federal oversight, individual states will design and use their own assessments and decide which progress monitoring indicators will be used. The new law creates partnerships between states, which will now have the flexibility to individualize their improvement plans, and the federal government, which will be responsible for seeing that the plans are evidence-based and effective (Klein, 2016).


Under this new law, states are required to develop “ambitious State-designed long-term goals,” and to measure progress toward those goals (American Federation of Teachers, 2016). Interim progress will be measured in terms of:

  • Improved academic achievement on state assessments

  • Graduation rates

  • Progress in English language proficiency for English learners


Each state will design their own accountability system that must include all of the following indicators:

  • Reading and math proficiency

  • Graduation rates (for high schools)

  • English language proficiency

  • For elementary and middle schools, student growth on another indicator that is valid, reliable and being used statewide

  • At least one other indicator of school quality or school culture, such as measures of safety, student engagement or educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, and postsecondary readiness.

For the first time, many school culture indicators will be included in the data collection of the Education Department’s office for civil rights (Klein, 2016). Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), one of the key people in designing ESSA, believes that, “when we take the handcuffs off, we’ll unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom, state by state, that will benefit children” (Klein, 2016).



  • The states are being asked to redesign their accountability systems, and they do have the ability to significantly reduce the emphasis on testing as a measure of school progress.

  • States and districts will now be able to select their own interventions, as long as they are evidence-based. States will be required to indicate which of their schools have historically overlooked various subgroups of students, including English-language learners, members of racial minorities and students in special education, that aren’t performing as well as their peers.

  • States must include at least one school quality indicator, such as access to advanced courses or a nurturing school climate.

  • States may opt to eliminate teacher evaluations that are based, in part, on student performance on standardized tests.

  • States are required to adopt challenging academic standards, but they do have the option to move away from the Common Core State Standards. The US Education Secretary is barred from requiring or encouraging any state to implement any particular set of academic standards.

One of the changes I see in this new legislation that makes me feel as though efforts are moving in a positive direction is that there is acknowledgement that school climate and learning environment are important factors in childrens’ ability to learn. I feel hopeful that the emphasis is moving away from standardized tests and more toward factors like student engagement, school safety and parent engagement. CASDA has been providing services to schools in an effort to improve school culture and climate for many years, and we have seen how children are not available to learn when their social and emotional needs are not being met. There will be many options for schools in terms of what interventions they will provide and how they will measure the impact of those interventions. Some possible areas of focus are:

  • Working with students who have experienced trauma (including those living in poverty)

  • Building positive student relationships

  • Parent engagement strategies

  • Collaborative Problem Solving to reduce challenging behaviors and decrease referrals

  • Student engagement (social, behavioral and cognitive)

  • Social emotional learning

  • Poverty simulations

It is encouraging that states and districts will have the ability to tailor their interventions to the specific needs of students. Now that school climate indicators will be part of the accountability system, schools will be able to dedicate the time necessary to implement some of these interventions with fidelity, thereby leading to more positive student outcomes.


Although this Brief gives an overview of ESSA and some of the changes district will face, there are many resources available that give a more detailed description of the new law. Resources can be found at:

  • White House fact sheet on ESSA

  • White House report on progress made in elementary and secondary education and how ESSA will cement that progress

  • Secretary Duncan’s blog post, “Finally a Fix to No Child Left Behind”

  • Excerpts from the Secretary’s prepared remarks at the Learning Forward conference


Additional materials will be published as they become available. Questions may be directed to ESSA.questions@ed.gov (Ed Review, 2015).


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