This article appeared in the Winter 2015-16 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed in December and was quickly signed by President Barack Obama. The new law will turn back the tide on many of former Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s legacy programs, giving states and local education agencies more autonomy. Duncan, one of the three remaining original members of Obama’s Cabinet until he stepped down from his post at the end of 2015, ushered in many reforms during his tenure, primarily overseeing an expansion of the federal role in the nation’s public schools. His agency provided relief to states, through waivers, from consequences of missed targets imposed by No Child Left Behind. But in doing so, Duncan largely bypassed Congress to mandate that states adopt landmark changes – policies such as closing achievement gaps, and implementing teacher evaluations and college and career ready academic standards. 

Every Student Succeeds Act 

The bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is entitled the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and is a compromise between a very conservative, partisan House bill and a moderate, bipartisan Senate bill. 

The act includes many prohibitions on interfering in any state’s decision making on testing, standards, school turnaround protocols and teacher evaluation systems. A provision allows for states to use federal funds for teacher and school leader evaluations, but such systems are not mandated. 

Although the new law maintains the requirement that Title I plans be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Education, it may take time to discern specifically how provisions of the 1000-plus page bill will limit federal authority in regard to regulation, implementation and monitoring of state-developed accountability systems. It was Congress’ intent to allow the secretary to issue regulations and guidance to clarify the law, but the bill prohibits any regulation “that would create new requirements inconsistent with or outside the scope of the law, including regulations that would take from a state the authority to establish a statewide accountability system.”

Under ESSA, states will still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, as well as in science three times between grades 3 and 12, and break out the data for campuses as well as different subgroups of students. The U.S. Department of Education in October issued recommendations to cap testing at 2 percent of classroom instructional time, seeking to eliminate “low-quality test preparation” activities on the local level. ESSA endorses this position by encouraging states to establish a limit on the aggregate amount of time spent on assessments, without suggesting a specific cap.

States will now have the responsibility of designing an accountability framework incorporating and giving the most weight to academic factors, including student performance on state assessments and high school graduation rates, in addition to state-chosen indicators of school quality or student success, which can include measures of educator engagement and school climate/safety. Rather than federally-prescribed interventions for low-performing schools, states and districts will have to use locally-developed, evidence-based interventions in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate.  

The maintenance of effort provision from NCLB remained, meaning state and local education agencies must continue to invest at least 90 percent of what they did the year before in order to receive federal dollars.

As a sweetener for the Obama administration, ESSA includes an early education grant component to be jointly administered through the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and USDE. The president’s Preschool for All initiative, designed to prepare low-income and vulnerable children, has been a top priority and will enable states to apply for funding to develop, update or implement an early education strategic plan.

Impact on teacher evaluation reform

The most immediate consequence of the legislation for Texas is the resolution of an ongoing feud between the state and USDE regarding the use of student performance growth in teacher evaluations. As a condition of Texas’ waiver from NCLB requirements – necessary to ensure exemption from unattainable accountability standards and the flexibility of federal funds – USDE had required the state to ensure that student growth at the individual teacher level would be a significant component of teacher appraisals. Since Texas allows local school districts to create their own appraisal instruments and the commissioner of education does not have the authority to require those local appraisals to include student test performance, the Texas waiver was at high risk of not being continued after the current school year. (Click here for more details and related information.) ESSA now directly prohibits the Department of Education from requiring states to implement any kind of teacher evaluation system.

This provision is especially important given the transition of USDE leadership to yet another supporter of tying teacher appraisals to student performance. John King Jr. is Obama’s selection to replace Arne Duncan (but will serve as acting secretary to spare a confirmation fight over a presidential nominee in the Senate). King previously served as commissioner of education in New York state and shares a like-mindedness with Duncan on education policy. His tenure in New York was turbulent; he played a key role in pushing for the adoption of a new teacher evaluation system that was tied to test scores. In a recent speech to the nation’s school chiefs, King maintained that test scores should remain a part
of teachers’ evaluations. 

Testing and accountability

ESSA includes a fix for a problematic issue in Texas: the double testing of students taking high school math courses in middle school. The revised law will eliminate the requirement for an eighth-grader taking Algebra I (and the accompanying end-of-course exam) to also take the eighth-grade math STAAR test. The bill also eliminates the current laws regarding adequate yearly progress for student performance on tests. AYP requirements had been one of the biggest problems with the original law, leading to the need for state waivers and allowing the overreach of USDE in state education policy through those waiver criteria.

Other practical effects at the state and district level may not be known for some time, as the freeing effects of the bill will shift the action to the state and local levels. Texas districts will now, for example, have the ability to use nationally recognized tests such as the SAT/ACT instead of the current high school subject matter tests, but this would require legislative change and individual district approval. 

The state also will have more flexibility in structuring the overall assessment and accountability systems and specifically in including more non-test-based factors. TCTA has pursued this approach for years, working to add factors such as school climate surveys to the accountability ratings. The timing in Texas is particularly interesting given the creation of a new statewide Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability. The 15-member commission, authorized by the Legislature in 2015, is charged with making recommendations for new systems of student assessment and public school accountability prior to the 2017 legislative session. Although several members have been named, the committee has not yet begun its work.

Repeal of “highly qualified” requirement

Rather than require that all teachers of core academic subjects be “highly qualified,” the bill simply mandates that states must ensure that all teachers and paraprofessionals working in schools receiving Title I funds meet applicable state certification and licensure requirements, and provide a description of how low-income and minority children enrolled in these schools are not served at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.

The ESSA legislation is scheduled to take effect for the 2016-17 school year. TCTA has provided comprehensive information about the new law on our website at tcta.org/essa.    

This article is a collaboration between Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc. (TCTA’s Washington, D.C., lobby firm) and TCTA staff.