In 2001, educational policy underwent a tremendous overhaul with the iconic No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act passed by the Bush administration. It standardized education, testing, as well as accountability for school districts. The law was not without controversy on some of its practices. In 2015, the Obama administration helped pass Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which built on the foundations of NCLB and sought to improve on various criticisms of the previous policy. While many new changes were welcomed by the public education sector, the bill was an ideological compromise between Republicans and Democrats at the time, and there were a number of important issues that were not addressed. In some perspective, ESSA continued to experience similar policy issues to its predecessor but in more modern contexts (Strauss, 2015). Every Student Succeeds Act is a comprehensive policy that sought to improve public education and shift more control to the states but continues to have evident issues with the accountability system and lack of strong measures to address inequality access to education.
As ESSA was implemented, it was initially met with enthusiasm, providing more power to the states in education and curbing what many perceived to be a federal overreach. It is a large and comprehensive policy, but some of the major elements will be addressed in this section. Title I is the major component of ESSA in discussing funding. The policy dedicates funding to schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged and minority students, authorized for $15 billion in spending, which is relatively low. ESSA removes the highly controversial School Improvement Grant (SIG) program of its predecessor NCLB. It was punitive and often counter-productive by requiring states to intervene in lowest-performing schools by either completely closing it, chartering it, or firing entire educational or administrative staff. Under ESSA, states determine how federal funds target and intervene in low-performing schools, using their definitions and locally developed evidence-based interventions. States can use federal and state funds toward school improvement and sustainability, a vital shift from punishment to support of local districts (AROS, 2016).
In terms of assessments, ESSA follows largely the NCLB structure with minor changes. State testing is required in reading, math, and science annually for grades 3-8, and at least once in high school. States and districts receiving Title I funds must administer annual National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in grades 4-8. ESSA now allows states to use a single annual summative assessment or multiple interim assessments that are combined into one score. Districts can use other tests for high schools, and states can develop computer-adaptive assessments. The Department of Education can no longer specify any aspect of the testing. Assessments must be administered to 95% of all students, but states have their own laws regarding opt-outs and disability accommodations. ESSA gives power to the states in establishing state standards but requires assurance that it adopts academic content standards in reading, math, and science that aligns with entrance requirements in the states’ higher education system. Outside these subjects, states have more flexibility in terms of curriculum, and also allowing states to develop alternate standards for special education students instead of a broad universal national standard used in previous years (ASCD, 2015).
A major element of any education policy is accountability. One of the issues discussed later will be regarding accountability in ESSA but the following provides a general overview. In ESSA, every state is required to develop accountability systems for all of its public schools, aimed at improving student performance and school success. However, states have broad discretions in regard to the design of the system (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). ESSA eliminates the requirements for 100% proficiency in reading and math as well as that schools make adequate yearly progress (AYP), based on testing. State develop independent accountability systems which determine its indicators, weighting, and differentiation methodology. Similar to the NCLB, student subgroups are established based on economic disadvantage, disability, limited language proficiency, major racial or ethnic groups, homeless status, and others. Performance goals for each subgroup can be established independently. However, traditional measures of student performance based on state assessments and graduation are utilized. ESSA requires states to release a publicly available annual report card that describes the state accountability system, identifies schools in need of improvement, and student performance data disaggregated by subgroup as well as financial and enrollment data (ASCD, 2015).
Despite the major changes or improvements described, ESSA remains a primarily test-based educational regime. It preserves the core unproductive structures of the NCLB. Annual standardized testing is mandated both in early and late secondary education, with certain subjects remaining as benchmarks. State reports to the federal government are based on these test scores as identification of schools in need of improvement focus on test scores and one other academic or quality criterion. Despite the transition of some powers to the states and theoretically providing flexibility in reform, the policy continues to encourage funding of charter schools and implementing corrective actions of the NCLB era. All state accountability systems must be approved by the federal government, and likely similar unproductive mechanisms of school closures or turnaround-driven layoffs will continue despite evidence of the ineffectiveness of this approach on struggling communities. The biggest and most prominent change is that the states have the power to decide the consequences of underperforming schools providing leniency in contexts of local communities (Mathis & Trujillo, 2016).
Accountability in Education Issues
The structure of accountability proposed by ESSA makes it difficult for policymakers to distinguish how states are holding schools accountable to how well they are serving students. Under the new flexible system, there are certain dangers to manipulative accountability standards, such as strong scores given to schools even though they may not serve well economically disadvantaged or students of disabilities. State standards are broad and uninformative but continue to be accepted by the federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. School improvement strategies also shifted focus toward individual schools or districts, making it difficult to compare in terms of accountability across state lines. The divergence from NCLB’s streamlined and uniformed standards (albeit with its issues) has created significant confusion and a wide dispersion of how states determine, identify, track, and report various indicators of performance and quality in schools (Ujifusa, 2019).
A significant concern in the new state accountability systems is that they are essentially turning away from the performance of disadvantaged students either due to socio-economic status, racial minorities, and students with disabilities and other life circumstances (i.e. homelessness). So far into the ESSA implementation, states fail to consistently include subgroups into key accountability provisions of school ratings and definitions used in identifying schools in need of support. Despite NCLB’s reliance on standardized testing, the policy differentiated that the quality of the school must be determined with the consideration of how vulnerable subgroups are performing. The key counterargument to that is, if the subgroup is large enough to be counted under the accountability system, it would be significant to negative affect the school-wide grade, therefore schools with overall high grades but low-performing subgroups would be rare (Petrilli, 2018). Nevertheless, it creates accountability issues as states essentially create systems that are most beneficial for their schools, potentially ignoring key indicators or subgroups. There is concern among critics that states and districts would institute a superficial system to adhere to federal requirements but not enact substantive accountability measures (Riddell, 2017).
The accountability provisions in the policy created controversy during the reauthorization process. States must have a differentiated accountability system that is applied to all schools and subgroups, while having the indicators of academic proficiency, another academic indicator of performance or growth, English language proficiency, and another less-weighted nonacademic indicator of student success. Furthermore, states must categorize schools into categories of targeted support and improvement (TSI), additional TSI (ATSI), and comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) based on their percentile of performance. States define the mentioned accountability indicators, and the federal government approves the state plan. However, the policy does not indicate what occurs if the state fails to follow the plan or makes inappropriate exceptions (Hess & Eden, 2017).
Furthermore, states establish the subgroups and sizes, an aspect that was already prone to substantial manipulation under NCLB and now will potentially be even more so. Small school systems with small subgroups were not held accountable for results, placing the accountability burden on big cities with large subgroups (Hess & Eden, 2017). Subgroup requirements for accountability were designed to reveal underperforming disadvantaged groups that would otherwise be hidden, intentionally or not in aggregate statistics. Smaller subgroup size decreases statistical reliability, and in specific cases, could create privacy concerns at local levels (Gordon, 2017). A significant body of research demonstrates that the design of accountability systems directly influences the response of state and district school systems, placing tremendous importance on the viability and competency of the design requirements in education policy.
Lack of Strong Measures to Address Inequality
Inequality in education in the United States is a prevalent and highly concerning element. As previously discussed, accountability systems seek to identify and quantify certain groups that are considered disadvantaged, thus unable to achieve similar levels of academic performance. The NCLB policy had the explicit purpose of narrowing the achievement gap by 2014 by helping all children achieve high standards. Ironically, by 2014, the achievement gap between the rich and poor was anywhere from 20 to 40 percent bigger than 25 years prior (Mathis & Trujillo, 2016). An economic and social shift demonstrated that family income was a predictor of academic achievement just as much as parental education. The income achievement gap is directly correlated to the racial gap in the contexts of income inequality and difficulty of social mobility. Schools are also affected by this opportunity gap as low-income districts receive 10% less per student (approximately $1,200), which children of racial minorities receive up to 15% less ($2,000) in educational funds. Despite many years since the 2008 Great Recession, in 2015, most states were spending less than a decade ago in a situation where school systems are in desperate need of funding (Mathis & Trujillo, 2016).
Criticism of ESSA suggests that the newfound freedoms to states and districts without a federal backstop and major oversight may result in some localities simply ignoring the needs of disadvantaged students and schools. ESSA was initially applauded by removing the federal top-down one-size-fits-all approach and allowing states to come in and offer flexible and innovative solutions to low academic performance Despite the theoretical need for states to develop accountability programs that would encompass the subgroups of underperforming students, the state plans are often approved without consideration even when lacking equity measures. Administrations are approving state requests for funds under Title I without regard for the federal law prioritizing equity in its policy language (Forte, 2018).
Equity measures are not completely absent from ESSA, as students are required to describe how they plan to address equity concerns in their plans, report school-level per-pupil spending, and identify and address inequities in resources for schools that need support. However, they simply do not go far enough, and as discussed earlier, the letter of the law will differ from practical realities. As an example, as one of the new quality indicators, states now include chronic absenteeism which is empirically associated with poor performance. While theoretically such indicators reveal vital disparities, highlighting schools that do not adequately prevent truancy from low-income neighborhoods, they are often overwhelmed by a number of other redundant indicators that states use to evaluate schools in a single area. The subgroup size described earlier also has equity implications, as each subgroup requires the school to track and report on the educational progress of that student population. By merging subgroups, schools essentially lump together groups as different as students with disabilities and English as second language learners that have highly variable learning needs and such data collection conceals the true nature of education progress in those groups. A review of state ESSA plans suggests that implementation of the policy varies in many ways, including long-term goals for student achievement and how they approach objectives for subgroups, which have significant negative implications for various disadvantaged student populations and overall achievement gaps (Fusarelli & Ayscue, 2019).
Suggested Policy Change
In order for ESSA to achieve major, equity-minded improvements to the educational system as was envisioned by its proponents, policymakers at the state level must depart from the NCLB practices and norms. Broad lessons from NCLB and now ESSA challenge over-arching questions surrounding poverty and education, the efficacy of reforms based on high-stake assessments, and the effects of privatization in education. The key is to adopt principles and objectives to support schools that have been largely absent from school reforms over the last 30 years. The shift needs to occur in returning to investing in resources for struggling schools, and deviation from strict monitoring of performance data that often does not relay the whole picture of education. Socio-cultural norms are entrenched in perceptions on which communities deserve school resources and which types of learners achieve consistently high levels. However, the national experience of the last decades demonstrated that education goes beyond objective performance data. Change must take on the form of adopting principles and the purpose of education into laws (Mathis & Trujillo, 2016).
In terms of subgroups, which are a significant point of accountability for states, ESSA includes both explicit or implicit methods to include a wider range of students without compromising statistics or cheating the system. As mentioned, decreasing n-size for subgroups is not always effective. However, there is the practice of data averaging pools of students across grade levels, increasing the number of observations and chance to meet minimum size requirements. Current federal guidance allows states to combine data across grades or school years. However, this creates the issue of not holding the school accountable for year-to-year changes but offers the benefit of including schools and students in accountability systems, not placing the sole responsibility on big-city school districts. Another common practice is creating super subgroups by aggregating data, a tactic used by states under the NCLB through custom designs. ESSA is unclear in its guidance on this issue, stating that all schools must be included in the accountability system but prohibiting combining major racial/ethnic subgroups. Advocates are commonly opposed to the super subgroup approach due to lack of transparency on racial issues, but at the same time it allows for accountability in low enrollment groups and increases coverage of students that common data averaging cannot (Gordon, 2017). The policy needs to be clarified and improved in these contexts by defining a specific mechanism that will provide greater coverage for accountability without compromising the transparency of data.
Overall, the accountability model should be revisited since most experts agree that standardized test scores should not be the sole reliance of evaluating students, educators, and schools. It is recommended to create a multimeric accountability model which would incorporate more than just general reading, math, and science subjects, including nonacademic factors and multiple measures of performance, and implement continuous improvement and support models. While benchmarks are important to collect at certain grade spans, they should not be the major factor in judging performance. Meanwhile, states should be given further flexibility for designing curriculum and accountability systems that suit their education infrastructure and culture. Furthermore, reporting of student achievement data and state annual report cards must be done publicly, transparently, and in disaggregated formats to promote equity. More detailed data for the public including resource allocation and funding level should be made available to empower the interests of all parties and hold appropriate entities accountable (ASCD, 2015).
Addressing the numerous equity issues in the education system requires looking at the root causes. Both state and federal governments must shift towards a more assistance role rather than regulatory which has been promoted by NCLB and currently ESSA. It is up to states and local districts to assure all students have equal access to high-quality teachers, a stimulating curriculum, and proper school resources. To ensure these opportunities, funds must be available and distributed in an equitable manner and must be sufficient to meet students’ needs, while educators should not be evaluated on aspects where they lack the necessary resources to achieve success. Furthermore, it is recommended that states and school districts collaborate closely with social services and labor departments, which allows for personal and socio-economic opportunities within disparate communities where schools often have the worst performance. Livable wages and adequate social support services for students, their families, and educators can raise educational achievement. Both public and private schools can adopt assignment policies to ensure integration and dispersion of pockets of poverty (Mathis & Trujillo, 2016).
Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 is a new iteration of federal education policy, which builds upon the foundations of NCLB but introduces new elements, the primary of which is dispersing more power over education to state governments. Minor reforms of high-stake assessment, privatization, and accountability systems were welcomed by educators, but the benefits are arguably not enough. Less generous interpretations of the policy suggest warnings of harm by compromising accountability by the states, lack of unity and comprehension, as well as issue of equity.
ESSA does not adequately address the economic bifurcation of the country’s school system and the opportunity gaps necessary to close achievement differences for underprivileged groups. Nevertheless, ESSA does take steps in the right direction and provides a possibility of further amendments that will improve elements of standardized testing, performance tracking, accountability systems and transparency, and equitable distribution of resources for later generations.
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