What Does ESSA Mean for Assessment?

By Lorna Collier

The nation’s sweeping new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), promises many changes, especially when it comes to assessment and accountability. While the law doesn’t take full effect until 2017, state school boards will need to start preparing this year for the transition.

Signed into law last December, ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It represents a distinct shift in philosophy from NCLB, ceding more control to states and lessening the reach of the federal government.

Gone, for example, are requirements that schools meet Annual Yearly Progress goals or face sanctions. States will have more freedom to determine how they measure student success, as well as to design and support their own improvement programs. ESSA also allows assessment systems that don’t focus on a single end-of-year administration.

“We are very much moving out of a compliance-focused set of education policy decisions to opportunities for states to make many more decisions,” says Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

So what are the key assessment changes under ESSA? Here’s an overview of some of the new law’s significant measures.

Key ESSA Provisions

More flexibility in annual testing

Like its predecessor, ESSA calls for student testing every year from grades three through eight, plus once in high school in math and reading; science also is tested at least once in grades 3-6, 6-9 and 10-12. Schools also must test at least 95 percent of their students.

However, ESSA grants states more options when it comes to what these tests will look like in practice. For example, states no longer have to rely on one big end-of-year test, but can choose to split up testing into smaller chunks over the school year.

When it comes to high school tests, states now have the option of using “nationally recognized tests,” such as the ACT or SAT, instead of state-created exams.

States still must provide an accountability plan to the Department of Education. However, ESSA allows up to 49 percent of accountability to come from more subjective measures, such as teacher engagement, a non-bullying environment or access to AP tests. A minimum of 51 percent must come from academic measurements, like state test scores or graduation rates.

Innovative assessment pilots

ESSA creates a new program that funds up to seven states (or consortia of states) that wish to try alternative, innovative ways to determine student success — things like competency- or performance-based assessment.

States will have to apply to win acceptance into the pilot program, and already “we’re seeing a lot of interest by states in this,” says Amundson. “People are looking for a better measure of what students need to learn and be able to do.”

Pulling up the high stakes

ESSA moves away from high-stakes testing by no longer requiring states to consider schools and teachers “failing” if students don’t score highly enough on tests to meet Adequate Yearly Progress requirements.

Focus on equity and achievement gaps

ESSA emphasizes support for struggling students and closing achievement gaps. States must continue to track and report data on the performance of groups such as English learners, low-income students, racial minorities and others, in addition to three new categories: homeless children, those in foster care and those with military connections. States can offer alternative tests to the one percent with the most severe cognitive disabilities, but if they want a waiver to exceed this cap, ESSA imposes new requirements states must meet.

“Under the new law, the federal government is engaged in a major balancing act between providing states with flexibility to design and implement their accountability systems, while continuing to hold schools and states accountable for educating all students, including those from traditionally disadvantaged and vulnerable student populations,” says Nancy Segal, executive director of government relations for ETS.

Implementation Challenges for States

The U.S. Department of Education recently released several proposed regulations on ESSA’s accountability requirements. Legislators appear to have divided along partisan lines over these proposals, with Democrats taking a generally supportive position while Republicans saying they will closely review the proposed regulations in order to make sure they conform to the original intent of the legislation. Proposed regulations on the assessment and other provisions have also been released.

While ESSA gives opportunities to states that they haven’t had under NCLB, it also poses some challenges.

“What we’re hearing from states is a very mixed bag,” says Jeremy Anderson, president of the Education Commission of the States. Though states appreciate their new empowerment, he says, “that doesn’t mean that every state is at the juncture to make major reforms or has all of the experts in place for that to happen.”

Creating an accountability system that meets ESSA’s requirements can be an intensive endeavor that not every state is equipped to handle.

“Some states may feel like they don’t have the resources to come up with their own accountability system,” notes Segal.

As for assessments, ESSA now allows states the option of picking off-the-shelf assessments such as the ACT or SAT, which can save time and money over creating their own.

States’ relationships with school districts may be in for a change, too. “No longer can a state ask a district to do something because the feds require it,” says Anderson. “Now it’s states working in a collaborative way with districts to say this is in the best interest of our students … It’s going to be a culture change for awhile.”

For now, it’s a time of transition for states, as they explore their new freedom and learn how ESSA’s new provisions can help them both improve student learning and effectively measure student success.

Read more about ESSA in ETS’s new report, The Road Ahead for State Assessments.


Lorna Collier is a writer specializing in education, technology and business. She writes frequently for the National Council of Teachers of English and the Center for Digital Education.