News from National Convention—The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

PTA Convention 2016 LogoOn December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, a significant change in how federal, state, and local governments will guide your child’s education for the next decade or more. While you can read the full 449 pages of the bill, a workshop at the 2016 National PTA Convention in Orlando highlighted the key points that families need to know about the new law, and National PTA is creating an array of materials to distill this information into bite-sized pieces.

ESSA—The Basics

ESSA is divided into eight “Titles,” each of which address a different aspect of federal education funding and requirements. The two titles of largest interest to families are Title I, dealing with schools with high poverty levels, and Title IV, dealing with funding for student support, charter and magnet schools, and family engagement. Overall, ESSA reduces the high-stakes testing of No Child Left Behind, makes states responsible for defining success for students and schools, and requires that children be provided a “well-rounded education.”

ESSA and Family Engagement

Family engagement is crucial to student success, so much so that schools would have to spend $1,000 more per student to see the same increases in student achievement that come from an involved family member. ESSA recognizes the important role that families play in education. In fact, the word “parent” is the fourth most mentioned term in the entire law, just behind “state education agency.” For many of the decisions that states and school districts will have to make, families are to be “meaningfully consulted” for many of them.

Under ESSA, Title I schools must have a written parent and family engagement policy that welcomes all families. As part of this policy, each school must have a family meeting annually to explain what students will learn, the assessments used to measure student progress, the state’s academic standards, and the proficiency levels that students are expected to meet. In addition, 1% of the Title I funds are to be used for parent and family engagement. These funds can be used for teacher’s professional development on family engagement, home visiting programs, sharing best practices, and collaborating with other organizations like PTA.

Title IV of ESSA is focused on improving every student’s academic achievement. As part of Title IV, Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFECs) are to be created to help school districts effectively engage families in in their children’s education. The SFECs are a new and improved version of the Parental Information and Resources Centers (PIRCs) that were part of ESEA/NCLB. The SFECs are to help implement more evidence-based approaches to family engagement.

While ESSA creates the SFECs, it is up to Congress to fund them each year. PTA is advocating for at least $10 million in funding for the SFECs (their authorized level in ESSA), an amount far less than the $39 million that the PIRCs were funded for under ESEA/NCLB. As of this writing, Congress has not appropriated funds for the SFECs, so contact your Senators and Representative today to ask for their support for family engagement. PTA has provided a pre-written letter that only requires your name, e-mail, and zip code (to identify your Representative) and two minutes of your time.

ESSA and Accountability

A significant part of ESSA was making states and local districts more responsible for the quality of students’ education. States will define their own academic standards and school accountability measures. States may also define their own teacher evaluation systems, but those systems are not required and do not have to include test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation. The law specifically says that states cannot be required to adopt specific standards or particular assessments, accountability systems, or teacher evaluation models.

States will still need to produce a school report card, and Illinois’s report card is considered by many to be the best in the country. There are also minimum requirements for a state’s accountability system in ESSA. These are:

  • Student assessment (see section below)
  • A second academic indicator (e.g., student growth, high school graduation rate, etc.)
  • English language proficiency
  • At least one other indicator of school quality or student success (e.g., Advance Placement classes, family engagement, discipline reports, attendance, etc.)

Note that states are not limited to only one extra indicator in that last requirement. Connecticut uses 12 indicators to measure school quality. Illinois is also planning to take a broad approach in measuring school performance.

In addition, ESSA requires school districts to provide students with a “well-rounded educational experience,” as defined by the state, and provides grants to help school districts meet this goal. Among the areas that such funds can be used are:

  • Accelerated learning courses (e.g., Advanced Placement and international Baccalaureate programs)
  • College and career guidance and counseling programs
  • Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, including computer science
  • Foreign language courses
  • Music and arts programs
  • Programs to teach American history, civics, economics, geography, and government

ESSA and Student Assessment

ESSA still requires states to have annual assessments in Math and English/Language Arts in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. States must also have a science assessment once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9, and once in grades 10-12. ESSA also requires that no less than 95% of all students or any subgroup of students participate in the state assessment.

While ESSA still requires annual assessments, it reduces the high-stakes nature of those assessments and provides resources for states and school districts to eliminate redundant assessments. Under NCLB, student scores were the sole determination of school performance, and schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) were subject to reduced funding, school reorganization, and other penalties. Because of the punitive nature of these consequences, many school districts significantly increased the number of assessments that they did in order to identify those students who could meet or exceed state standards with a little extra support.

Because student scores on an annual assessment are only a part of a school’s performance under ESSA, these assessments do not have the high-stakes accountability that they did under NCLB. In addition, ESSA calls for states to provide additional funds and supports to help schools not meeting the state’s measure of school performance rather than reducing resources. With the reduced emphasis on a single assessment of student performance determining a school’s performance, districts can move away from heavy use of their own assessments and focus only on those that help teachers measure and improve student success.

Illinois has already begun this process by developing a Student Assessment Inventory tool for school districts to evaluate how they are using assessment, what information they are receiving from those assessments, and where redundancies can be eliminated. The pilot project of this tool in three Illinois school districts resulted in a significant reduction in local assessments, improved professional development for teachers to create their own assessments for their classroom, and improved information on student performance to help teachers support their students’ education.

Additionally, Illinois’s State Assessment Review Committee (SARC) is currently conducting a PARCC Listening Tour to collect feedback from students, families, teachers, and administrators about this past spring’s PARCC assessment in Illinois schools. You can fill out a short survey to provide your feedback to the committee.

All feedback will be included in the SARC’s final report.