The federal government has a small, but important role, to play in education when it comes to underserved students and low-performing schools. Here’s what parents and community leaders need to know about the new legislation and the role of the federal government in education.

essa_featured-800x418What is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)?
President Barack Obama has signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, and it will go into full effect in the 2017-18 school year. ESSA is the most recent version of the federal government’s biggest K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which came into effect in 1965. This new law replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which has been in place since 2002. NCLB required states and districts to record students’ performance by specific subgroups, including race/ethnicity. NCLB also required that local authorities create consequences for low-performing schools. Because it was time for NCLB to be re-authorized, education leaders and policy makers reviewed what worked well and what needed improvement in NCLB, and made revisions that will be seen when ESSA is implemented.

Overall, while the federal government has an important role in making sure that all students are provided access to a good education, ESSA gives states the most control and responsibility over how K-12 public education is delivered in districts and schools.

How has federal government’s role changed? What about the state’s role?
The federal government’s role is education is to ensure that all students are provided fair access to a high-quality education. This happens in two key ways: (1) by requiring that all states collect and report data about how schools and students perform, so that it’s easier to identify where access is not equitable and where there is the highest need; and (2) by making sure that the fairest and most appropriate funding is made available to high-need schools and students.

Like under NCLB, with ESSA the federal government will still require yearly testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. However, under ESSA, states and districts will now have a bigger responsibility than before in deciding how test scores will factor into school performance.

Once the law is fully in place, it will be up to states to determine how best to turn low-performing schools around. States will be able to set their own goals for measuring how schools are doing, and will be able to decide how much test scores, graduation rates and other measures of student performance will factor into their calculation of school success.

How will ESSA affect California schools?
ESSA may help in providing parents with a clearer way of knowing how schools are doing.

Until 2013, in California, parents used to rely on the Academic Performance Index (API) to know about school performance. For several years, the state used the API to measure schools and districts. It offered a score on a scale from 200 to 1,000 — California’s goal was to get all states above 800. The state stopped using the API in 2013 when it changed the standardized testing system it used to measure student performance.

While the API was not perfect, many parents appreciated that it provided a straightforward and easy-to-understand indicator of how a school was performing.

The ESSA regulations require that states develop an accountability system to measure school and student performance, identify and target support towards schools that need additional help. It is up to each state to figure out exactly what to include in this measurement, but the draft regulations allow states to consider factors like state test scores, graduation rates, English language proficiency rates, suspension or expulsion rates, student absenteeism and school and student survey scores.

In addition, the state can lower a school’s performance “rating” if less than 95% of its students do not participate in state standardized testing.

This accountability system may provide information that allows parents to compare schools and make more informed decisions about the schools your children attend.

It seems like ESSA has a lot to do with testing. Why is testing so important? Aren’t lots of students opting out of state tests?
ESSA (like NCLB before it) requires yearly testing in every state. State tests are an important way to get data about how well or how poorly students and schools are performing. Without test scores, it would be hard to tell whether schools are doing our good job in educating all students and where they need to get better. Even if they are not perfect, tests give us the information we need to know when and where there are achievement gaps between groups of students. That allows us to identify what is and is not working in classrooms, schools and districts.

ESSA requires that school performance be measured not only by test scores but also by other factors, and California and other states still haven’t yet decided what will be included. But frequently, a huge part of measuring how teachers, schools and districts are doing is based on students’ test scores. That’s one reason why testing is such an important issue, and why it’s really key for parents to keep up with the details of how ESSA wants school and student performance to be measured.

Some people disapprove of standardized testing and are protesting students’ participation and “opting out” of the tests. Most people would agree that the current education system, including standardized tests, needs lots of improvement. However, despite their imperfections, state tests provide useful data and are currently one of the best ways to hold teachers, schools and districts accountable for making sure schools are equitable and students are successful.

Will I see changes at my child’s school because of ESSA?
You may not see much of a change in your school right now. However, schools that are not performing well sometimes need additional support or funds from the state or the federal government so that they can improve. ESSA requires states to identify the lowest-performing schools and take action to improve them.

If your child attends a school where the state test scores are in the bottom 5%, has less than a 67% graduation rate, or has a high percentage of students who are not performing well, ESSA considers these failing schools and will require some changes (and possibly state intervention) to turn the school around.

This matters a lot: Schools that consistently get low test scores are not serving their students well, and those students are not receiving the education they deserve.

ESSA does not currently spell out what specific actions states should take in turning failing or low-performing schools around, but this may open up opportunities for parents and the community to advocate for meaningful changes in your school.

What do people think of ESSA?
Many education groups see ESSA as a step in the right direction for closing achievement and opportunity gaps because ESSA requires states to make systems that show what’s working and what needs improvement. Despite that, some are skeptical that each state’s system will be equally effective in its measurement of district and school performance, and would like more specific rules for what these systems should look like.

Teachers’ unions like that ESSA allows states to determine how teachers’ performance will be evaluated, but do not like that schools may be penalized for low test participation rates. Generally speaking, teachers’ unions are against using state tests to influence decisions of hiring, firing, or monitoring the performance of teachers and school leaders, and often see testing as a way to “punish” teachers and schools.

Many civil rights organizations like the NAACP, MALDEF and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have been pushing for the federal government to play a larger role in holding districts accountable for improving schools and student performance and are disappointed that ESSA pushes so much control down to the state and local levels.

How can I stay informed about ESSA?
Here are some great ESSA-related resources: