What’s the same—and what’s different—in the new law.
By Gene Kerns
For educators, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) despite the fact that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has replaced it. Two major reasons that NCLB left such a lasting mark is that the legislation was particularly far reaching in terms of requirements, and it remained in place for a long time, across the administrations of both Presidents Bush and Obama.
Though NCLB was with us for quite some time and remains fresh in our memories, ESSA is now the law of the land, and intense work is beginning across the country as states develop their ESSA plans. As we navigate the paradigm shift of changing federal requirements, it is important to understand several key elements of ESSA.
Some things remain the same.
Just like NCLB, ESSA requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3–8 and once in high school, and to hold schools and districts accountable for student proficiency. States must also assess science at least once in grades 3–5, 6–9 and 10–12. Within these continuing requirements, ESSA does afford states more latitude in setting the parameters and timelines for reaching proficiency. From this point on, however, differences become more apparent.
There’s tremendous flexibility.
A major difference between ESSA and NCLB is flexibility. Any conversation about ESSA must begin with the fact that there are now many more options. As a result, outside of a few immovable requirements (e.g., mandatory testing), it is difficult to make blanket statements that will apply to everyone. The impact that teachers and students feel will be very much determined by the options their states take in responding to ESSA.
There are new types of “tests.”
In first exploring what the testing and accountability requirements of ESSA are, we are somewhat like students who often ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” Not everything in ESSA relates to the tests.
While states must still assess the points outlined above, ESSA offers more options in the type of assessment(s), including:
- A traditional single, summative assessment
- Interim assessments throughout the year, resulting in a single summative score at the end of the year
In addition, states can apply to be one of seven states that will be permitted to try out new, innovative assessment approaches.
States are also now free to use computer adaptive tests (CATs), resolving the tension between the adaptability of CATs and NCLB’s requirement of assessing students on grade-level standards.
In terms of innovative new assessment approaches, New Hampshire has attracted much attention for its Performance Assessment in Competency Education (PACE) project. Students there will undertake rigorous performance tasks designed locally, but based on competencies identified by the state. The result hoped for is a more authentic and personalized assessment process.
Many are excited by the opportunities these assessment options present, while others express concern. If, for example, multiple interim assessments throughout the year result in a summative score, will the interim assessments remain close to teaching and learning, or will they take on the feel of frequent summative tests? To what extent can we develop and score dynamic, performance tasks in a reliable way on a large scale? Time will tell.
High schools can potentially substitute one assessment for another.
Also new in ESSA, states can allow districts to administer a nationally-recognized high school assessment (e.g., SAT or ACT) in place of the state-selected assessment for the 10–12 grade span. The result will clearly be a reduction in testing.
Non-academic measures are included.
In a move to acknowledge that there’s more to school than test results, ESSA requires that at least one “non-academic measure” now be included in states’ accountability systems. Such measures could include information from school climate surveys, measures of engagement, absenteeism, or school safety data to bring a more holistic picture of school quality.
Growth is an optional other dimension.
Throughout much of the NCLB era it concerned us that the legislation’s emphasis was solely on proficiency. While high expectations are a good thing, factors such as language acquisition, learning disabilities, and poverty all profoundly impact proficiency. ESSA allows considerations of growth as an optional component in states’ accountability plans. In states where this option is exercised, conversations will turn to how to best measure growth.
The definition of professional development is more specific.
Finally, what constitutes professional development has become much more specific under ESSA. Defined in very broad and open terms in NCLB, professional development is now defined in ESSA as activities that “are sustained (not stand-alone, one-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused.”
This is a kinder, gentler NCLB.
Ultimately, the mandatory testing requirements at the core of NCLB remain in ESSA, but with increased flexibility and the expanded scope of ESSA (e.g., non-academic indicators), we will likely view this newest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as kinder and gentler than its predecessor.
Gene Kerns, Ed.D., is the vice president and chief academic officer at Renaissance. Kerns is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to K–12 administrative experience.