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What is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the main education law for public schools in the United States.

  • The law holds schools accountable for how students learn and achieve.

  • ESSA aims to provide an equal opportunity for disadvantaged students, including those who get special education.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the main law for K–12 public education in the United States. It replaced No Child Left Behind . ESSA is a large, complex law. It affects all students in public schools.

The main purpose of ESSA is to make sure public schools provide a quality education for all kids. It gives states a central role in how schools account for student achievement. This includes the achievement of historically disadvantaged students who fall into one or more of four key groups:

  • Students in poverty

  • Students of color

  • Students who receive special education services

  • Those with limited English language skills

Under ESSA, each state creates an education plan for its schools within a framework provided by the federal government. The law gives parents and caregivers a chance to weigh in on these plans. Each state plan must describe:

  • Academic standards

  • Annual testing

  • School accountability

  • Goals for academic achievement

  • Plans for supporting and improving struggling schools

  • State and local report cards

These aren’t the only requirements for states and school districts. But they’re the ones that most directly impact kids who learn and think differently. 

ESSA also provides funding for literacy programs and other grants. And it encourages innovation in how schools teach kids.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has waived some of ESSA’s rules. For example, states have more flexibility on annual testing and school accountability. Keep this in mind as you read more. Things may change as schools return to normal.

Dive deeper

Academic standards

Under ESSA, each state may set its own academic standards and coursework for schools. This is the material students are expected to learn in each grade.

ESSA requires that states have “challenging” academic standards in reading, math, and science. This means a state’s curriculum must prepare students to succeed in college and in a career. Also, states must apply these standards to all students, including those with learning and thinking differences.

Read more about state academic standards .

Annual testing

ESSA requires states to test students. But the number and kinds of tests depend on the grade level of the child.

States must test students in reading and math once a year in grades 3 through 8, as well as once in high school. They must also test kids in science once in grade school, middle school, and high school. Also, states must provide accommodations on these tests and list them in students’ or .

Only 1 percent of students can be given alternate tests . These tests are different from the state’s general education tests. Just a small number of kids with cognitive disabilities take these kinds of assessments.

Learn more about accommodations for these tests .

School accountability

ESSA requires states to hold schools accountable for how students achieve. This means each state is responsible for having a plan in place to identify schools that are underperforming.

Under the law, there are specific things that must be in the state’s accountability plan.

ESSA requires each state to choose a minimum of five ways to measure school performance. The first four are academic indicators that are mandatory:

  • Academic achievement

  • Academic progress

  • English language proficiency

  • High school graduation rates

The fifth measure must be a way to measure school quality or student success, and states can select more than one way to do this. For example, states can choose to measure any of the following areas:

  • Kindergarten readiness

  • Access to and completion of advanced coursework

  • College readiness

  • Discipline rates

  • Chronic absenteeism

Under ESSA, the state must use at least five measures to evaluate how schools are serving kids. But the first four academic indicators have the most weight.

Goals for academic achievement

States must set achievement goals for students. This means states have to come up with a way to measure if students are improving or not. These goals are important for students who tend to struggle more than others, like students who get special education services.

The state must set “ambitious” goals for kids who are often the furthest behind. For example, the state may set a long-term goal to raise the high school graduation rates for students in special education. And to reach this long-term goal, there might be shorter-term ways of measuring progress. This can help to make sure students are on track.

These goals are supposed to help struggling students catch up and close the achievement gap with other students. Again, these goals must be spelled out in each ESSA state plan.

Plans for improving struggling schools

ESSA requires states to identify schools that are struggling. There are two categories of struggling schools that states must try to improve:

  1. “Comprehensive Support and Improvement” schools, which are the lowest-performing schools in a state

  2. “Targeted Support and Improvement” schools, where certain student groups are consistently underperforming

Under ESSA, once a school is considered “struggling,” states and school districts must create plans to try to help get the school back on track. The law requires that the plans must use evidence-based teaching and approaches.

Find out what it takes for instruction to be evidence-based .

State and local report cards

ESSA requires that each state and school district publish report cards. This is a big part of the law. This means states and local school districts must have public information available on how schools are doing.

Among other things, the following must be reported:

  • Test score results

  • High school graduation rates

  • School funding information

  • Teacher qualification

The report cards also give details on “subgroups” of students. This includes students of color, kids in poverty, those learning English, and students in special education. The report cards show parents how well or poorly schools are serving their kids. If a state identifies a school or subgroup as struggling, it must notify parents.

Find your school’s report card.

The role parents and caregivers play in ESSA

ESSA requires states to include parents and caregivers in the school accountability process. This input helps ensure that schools focus on disadvantaged kids.

There are two key areas to get involved. First, parents and caregivers can weigh in on their state ESSA plan. They can give input on the goals for achievement, accountability, and struggling students. Second, they have a say in the report cards in their state. This helps ensure that the public knows how schools are doing.

Learn more by reaching out to your state’s department of education or to Understood founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

Reading and literacy programs under ESSA

Apart from the state plans, ESSA provides funding for several optional programs to assist schools. This includes two important reading and literacy programs for students.

The law authorized the creation of the National Center on Improving Literacy. The center acts as a clearinghouse for information related to literacy and students with disabilities. 

ESSA also provides literacy education grants to states. Since the law passed, Congress has provided millions of dollars in funding for evidence-based literacy instruction .

School innovation under ESSA

Finally, ESSA encourages schools to innovate. Trying new teaching methods and practices can help kids with learning and thinking differences.

For example, ESSA supports Universal Design for Learning  (UDL). This is an approach that offers students many ways to learn the same material. UDL isn’t just helpful for students in special education. It allows all students to use different methods to show what they know. And that gives them an equal chance to thrive in school.

ESSA also encourages states to expand personalized learning . This approach aims to meet students where they are. It lets kids learn at their own pace and to have a say in how and what they learn.

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