studentsKylie Thomas is an OK Policy intern and a Master’s student in economics at American University. She previously earned her Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Tulsa.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era is finally coming to an end, and a new era of education policy is being ushered in with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015 after passing the U.S. House and Senate with bipartisan support. The Act reauthorizes and amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and goes into full effect at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. The last reauthorization of ESEA was the passage of NCLB in 2001. 

This post is part one of a two-part series which discusses what ESSA does and how it will affect Oklahoma. Part one will look at ESSA’s effects on accountability and standards, and part two will examine ESSA’s effects on testing and teachers.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more power over school accountability

ESSA allows states to establish their own long term goals, which include measurements of short-term progress. For all public schools, academic achievement will be measured by tests and English language proficiency. States must also include at least one other indicator of school quality or student success. Possibilities for this indicator include student engagement, access to/completion of advanced coursework, college readiness, school climate, or another indicator that the state chooses. In addition, elementary and middle schools will have to include another academic indicator, such as a measure of student growth, determined by the state. High schools will have to include graduation rates. It is the states’ responsibility to decide how much weight to assign each indicator, but the academic indicators collectively have to count more than indicators like student engagement and school climate.

More narrowly, ESSA affects federal law around school accountability in two significant ways:

  • ESSA changes accountability and assessment for English Language Learner students: In an attempt to make ELL students a priority, ESSA eliminates the Title III accountability system (accountability for ELL students) and incorporates English language proficiency into the Title I accountability system (accountability for all other students). The test scores of ELL students will be excluded from state results for their first school year in the U.S, used only as a measure of student growth in their second year, and included in the state results in their third year.
  • ESSA calls for school and state intervention in low-performing schools: ESSA requires states to develop a methodology to identify low-performing schools at least once every three years in three categories: 1) the lowest-performing 5 percent of all schools; 2) all public high schools that are failing to graduate one third or more of their students; and 3) schools where a subgroup of students “consistently underperforms.” Each district that doesn’t meet one of these standards must develop a plan with stakeholders (principals, parents, teachers, etc.) to improve student outcomes based on the indicators incorporated in the state’s accountability system. If improvements are not made after four years, state-determined action will be taken. The federal government cannot require any specific interventions to be used.

Oklahoma has been using the A-F grading system for school accountability. This system will have to be revised as a result of ESSA. The system currently is made up of two primary components, student performance and student growth, which each make up half of the overall grade. However, it does not include English language proficiency, and it does not fully incorporate graduation rates as an academic indicator for high school students. Currently, graduation rates under the A-F grading system are used as an opportunity for schools to gain bonus points.

The Every Student Succeeds Act ensures state control of education standards

ESSA prohibits the federal government from requiring or encouraging the adoption or removal of any academic standards, including Common Core. States will have the ability to choose their own standards, but they will be required to adopt “challenging” standards that are aligned to the entrance requirements of the state’s public higher education system and to state career standards in math, reading and science.

“Under ESSA, Oklahoma has both more flexibility and more responsibility to develop a school accountability system that accurately assesses what matters most for students and what schools can and cannot do to improve student outcomes.”

Oklahoma has been developing new state standards since repealing Common Core in 2014. HB 3399 required Oklahoma to have new standards ready in 2016. Oklahoma Academic Standards in Science were already approved in 2014.  In March, Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics were approved. In total, Oklahoma has standards in place in 12 subject areas for 2016-17. Attempts by the Oklahoma Legislature to disapprove or require changes in the standards did not make it to final approval, so the standards will go into effect in the 2016-2017 school year.

Because these standards will be in effect for the next six years, it is unlikely that Oklahoma’s standards will change as a result of ESSA. However, these new standards will affect student testing. Oklahoma has until the 2017-18 school year to create tests aligned to the new standards.

The Bottom Line 

Unlike NCLB, ESSA will roll back the authority and role of the federal government in education policy and return it to the hands of states and districts. As a result, Oklahoma has both more flexibility and more responsibility to develop a school accountability system that accurately assesses what matters most for students and what schools can and cannot do to improve student outcomes. Additionally, although it is unlikely that ESSA will have a direct impact on Oklahoma’s current education standards, Oklahoma now has more control over standards than we did under NCLB.