5 Things Parents Need to Know About ESSA

Friday, March 31, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

In December of 2015, former President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. This ended a long and contentious process to reauthorize the federal government’s primary piece of legislation guiding K–12 education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), for the first time since 2002. 

Now, having had over a year to clarify stipulations of the act and allow time for planning, states are beginning to finalize new testing requirements and accountability systems. And, most parents have probably heard at least some news of these developments. But, do you know how it will impact you and your child? Here are five things all parents should understand about ESSA:

1. ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

ESEA was first ratified in 1965 “to ensure that every child achieves” by earmarking funds for education and setting standards for school accountability. It has been reauthorized and updated numerous times since then, with ESSA being the latest iteration. ESSA replaces the George W. Bush administration’s NCLB and revamps the federal framework for funding formulas, testing requirements, and student achievement accountability (particularly for specific student groups, including minority students, students living in poverty, English language learners, and students classified as having a disability). ESSA is the law of the land regarding K–12 education.

2. ESSA lets states determine how they want to handle testing

NCLB received a lot of criticism for its rigid accountability requirements—and the focus on standardized testing that resulted. ESSA seeks to change the approach to testing by handing control back to individual states to determine exactly what standards they want to assess against and how they want students to be able to demonstrate achievement. The law does require that the standards states choose to adopt are academically challenging and focus on college and career preparation.  

3. New testing requirements under ESSA aren’t set in stone . . . yet

As part of states’ new freedom to determine their own testing procedures, ESSA mandated that each state develop and submit a plan for updated accountability systems. States were required to provide opportunities within their communities for all stakeholders, including educators and parents, to provide input on designing these plans. Now, the time has come for states to finalize and submit their plans for review by the federal government (props to all of you who attended a town hall meeting!). A first round of 20 states will be submitting their plans on April 3, with remaining states required to submit on September 18. These plans must cover key areas of accountability that ESSA describes, including academic indicators, school-quality indicators, graduation rates, English-language acquisition, and state report cards.

4. ESSA reprioritizes family engagement

Since its inception, the ESEA has recognized the key roles that family and other supporters play in the success of all students—and especially disadvantaged students. However, ESSA includes several important new provisions to make sure that parents and other community members are meaningfully engaged in students’ learning. Most notably, ESSA requires that all districts reserve at least 1% of the Title I funds they receive for parent and family engagement activities, including staff training regarding engagement strategies, family and community outreach programs, sub-granting to community-based or business organizations focused on family engagement, and other relevant initiatives. Additionally, districts (regardless of Title I status) must carry out at least one identified strategy for effective family engagement, and ESSA funds Statewide Family Engagement Centers (similar to NCLB’s Parental Information Resource Centers, unfunded since 2012) to support these activities.

5. Expect to feel the effects of ESSA in the 2017–18 school year

Although it has been over a year since ESSA was enacted, its effects have yet to truly be felt. The law requires that states begin to implement new requirements for the 2017–18 school year. As states finalize and submit new accountability plans in the coming months, watch for more concrete updates on what ESSA will actually mean—in regard to testing, funding, and community programming—for your student in your home state and district.

Keep up with the latest developments related to the Every Student Succeeds Act—watch the federal Department of Education’s ESSA homepage for updates, or check out these helpful resources: