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The difference between the Every Student Succeeds Act and No Child Left Behind

By Understood Team

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the main federal law for K–12 general education. It covers all students in public schools.

When it was passed in 2015, ESSA replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The two laws are different, but they have some things in common. This chart shows the differences between them.

 Every Student Succeeds ActNo Child Left Behind
State vs. federal authority

States are responsible for holding schools accountable for student achievement. The law provides a framework, but it’s a flexible framework. Each state can set its own goals for student achievement within that federal framework.

States were responsible for holding schools accountable for student achievement. The law provided a framework for states, but there was less flexibility for states to set their own goals.

The law also put forward a universal goal that every student in every school be proficient in reading and math.

Annual testing

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.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans can get accommodations on all annual state tests.

States aren’t limited to using their own tests. They can use nationally recognized tests, such as the SAT and ACT. (But those scores aren’t necessarily valid for college admission.)

Only 1 percent of all students can be given “alternate” tests.

ESSA encourages states and districts to get rid of unnecessary testing. The law includes funding for them to audit their current testing.

ESSA will also provide funds for seven states to explore “innovative” tests. These are tests that align with personalized learning and competency-based education.

States had to test students in reading and math once a year in grades 3 through 8, as well as once in high school. They also had to test kids in science once in grade school, middle school and high school.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans could get accommodations on these tests.

States didn’t have the option to use tests other than their own state tests.

There was no limit on the number of students who could take “alternate” tests.

Academic standards

States have to adopt “challenging” academic standards in reading, math and science. That could be the Common Core State Standards. But the federal government can’t try to influence a state’s decision.

States had to adopt “challenging” academic standards in reading, math and science.

The law didn’t bar the federal government from encouraging states to adopt a particular set of standards.

Accountability measures

With ESSA, states must consider more than just test scores when evaluating schools.

Each state must use four academic factors that are included in the law. States can choose a fifth factor that impacts school quality.

The required academic factors must be:

  • Reading and math test scores
  • English-language proficiency test scores
  • High school graduation rates
  • A state-chosen academic measure for grade schools and middle schools

The school-quality factor could include things like:

  • Kindergarten readiness
  • Access to and completion of advanced coursework
  • College readiness
  • School climate and safety
  • Chronic absenteeism

Overall, states must give more weight to the academic factors than to the school-quality factors.

NCLB focused solely on student academic achievement and primarily used state reading and math test scores when evaluating how schools were doing.

Achievement targets

States must set achievement targets for students in schools. States must also set ambitious goals for groups of students who are the furthest behind, like students in special education. These goals should help close the gap with other students.

There are no federal penalties for struggling schools. Instead, these schools will get more funding and will have to develop a plan to improve.

States had to bring all students up to the “proficient” level on state tests. This included students in special education.

States also had to set targets for improvement, called adequate yearly progress (AYP). If a school didn’t meet AYP, it could be labeled as “needing improvement.” It could be required to fire its staff and face other federal penalties.

Struggling students and schools

States and school districts must have a plan for helping schools that:

  • Have high drop-out rates
  • Are consistently struggling, or
  • Have a specific group of students, like those in special education, who are struggling

Decisions about what to do may be made by the state, or by local school districts and schools. But ESSA requires states to use evidence-based methods to help these struggling schools and students.

If a school or subgroup of students was struggling, the federal government offered the state a specific set of actions to take to improve the school. There was limited local decision-making.

State and school district report cards

Schools must publicly report test results, other measures of student achievement, and information about how much funding they are receiving.

They must break these down by “subgroups” of students. The reporting has to show the performance of students in special education, minorities, those in poverty and those learning English.

If a state identifies a school or subgroup as struggling, it must tell parents.

Schools had to publicly report test results and other measures of student achievement.

They had to break these down by “subgroups” of students. The reporting had to show the performance of students in special education, minorities, those in poverty and those learning English.

National Center on Reading Issues

ESSA calls for the creation of a national center focused on literacy and reading issues for kids with disabilities. This includes dyslexia.

The center will be a clearinghouse for information for parents and teachers.

NCLB didn’t include a national literacy center.

Literacy programs

ESSA has a literacy education grant program. This program authorizes up to $160 million in literacy grants to states and schools.

The grants fund evidence-based instruction in literacy skills, including writing, phonological awareness and decoding.

NCLB had several literacy programs that have since been defunded.

UDL and personalized learning

ESSA endorses Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This approach to teaching aims to meet the needs of all students, including those with learning and thinking differences.

The law also encourages states to expand personalized learning for students.

NCLB didn’t include UDL or personalized learning.

Parent involvement

ESSA requires states to get input from parents and families as they create state plans. To get involved, reach out to your state’s department of education.

NCLB didn’t require states to include parent input when creating their state plans.

Opt-out

ESSA doesn’t create a federal opt-out option if parents don’t want their child to take standardized tests.

But it also doesn’t stop states from having their own opt-out laws.

NCLB didn’t address the opt-out issue.

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ESSA is fairly new, so it may be a while before you know how it will impact your child’s education.

Under ESSA, states have a bigger role in holding schools accountable. To find out how to get involved with your state’s accountability plan, reach out to your local Parent Training and Information Center .

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