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[Education Policy] ESSA Updates & Insights

[Education Policy] ESSA Updates & Insights

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed by Congress and signed into law a little over five months ago. In previous blogs, we provided an early overview of key aspects of the law and a guide to ESSA and the 2016 budget. Now, it’s time for an update.

After passage of ESSA, a process began known as negotiated rulemaking, which helps provide additional information and clarification around important aspects of the legislation. The process was carried out in three sessions during the months of March and April, taking a total of eight days. Through the sessions, a committee of education leaders met to discuss, debate, and define regulations on accountability, assessment, and supplement-not-supplant funding stipulations. Now that the process is complete, I’d like to look at the regulations in place regarding ESSA and offer some insights into things already happening at the state level aligned to the legislation. 

Assessment and Accountability

The Negotiated Rulemaking Committee spent considerable time discussing assessment and ultimately provided clarification on a number of things impacting both assessment and accountability. Here’s a quick list of ESSA assessment and accountability requirements:

  • ESSA requires states to define both long-term and annual goals for proficiency on state tests, graduation rates, and English-language proficiency. The U.S. Department of Education will establish a “peer review” committee to approve state plans. New state assessment systems must be in place for the 2017–18 school year.
  • All students must be tested in grades 3–8 and one high school grade in both reading/language arts and math. Students must be tested in three different grades in science.
  • Tests must be aligned to challenging state academic standards that meet college- and career-readiness guidelines. The U.S. Department of Education will have no role in reviewing or approving state standards or assessments.
  • Tests do not have to be typical standardized tests. They can be performance-based or competency-based assessments designed to measure application of complex, higher-order skills. 
  • Tests do not have to be administered as a single end-of-year assessment but can be given as multiple interim tests throughout the school year.
  • States can use computer adaptive tests (CAT) for their accountability tests. Negotiated rulemaking clarified that CAT tests can use items on, above, and below grade level, but tests must report each student’s skill level relative to his or her actual grade level.
  • States can allow districts to use a valid and reliable nationally recognized test (like the SAT®, ACT®, PARCC, or Smarter Balanced assessment) in place of the state high school test. Negotiated rulemaking clarified that the same test must be used across all schools in a district.
  • Students in 8th grade taking advanced math courses can take a test at their advanced level in place of the state 8th grade math test. This flexibility will help reduce redundant testing and will allow advanced students to take tests appropriate for them.
  • ESSA requires states to collect and report accountability data for subgroups and does not allow the practice of combining groups into what’s been called “super subgroups.” ESSA requires reporting on the same subgroups as No Child Left Behind (NCLB):
    • Economically disadvantaged students
    • Racial and ethnic groups
    • Male and female students
    • Migrant students
    • Students with disabilities
    • English language learners (ELLs)
  • ESSA also requires three new subgroups that were further defined in negotiated rulemaking:
    • Homeless students
    • Foster care children
    • Military-connected students
  • 95% of students statewide must participate in every state test. 
  • States can administer alternative assessments to up to 1% of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. States struggling to get below the 1% threshold can apply for a waiver, but waivers will only be granted for one year with a requirement that 95% of special education students participate in the state test.
  • For English language learners, states must make an effort to provide tests in languages other than English spoken by significant numbers of students. States must also test ELLs in English reading, speaking, listening and writing skills and must track progress toward proficiency.
  • In addition to the academic factors (test scores, graduation rates, and growth data) required in state accountability systems, ESSA requires a brand-new component in the form of at least one additional non-academic indicator of school success:
    • Student engagement
    • Educator engagement
    • Access to advanced coursework (like AP®, IB®, or dual enrollment)
    • Postsecondary readiness
    • Attendance
    • School climate and safety
    • “Any other indicator the state chooses”

Early State Examples of Assessment and Accountability


During the weeks and months when ESSA was still working its way through Congress, the Connecticut State Department of Education was designing a new accountability system that would move the state away from the traditional NCLB accountability model focused solely on test scores and graduation rates toward a more comprehensive, holistic system. Connecticut’s new Next Generation Accountability System (NGAS) has 12 indicators of school success that align with both the requirements and intent of ESSA. The 12 NGAS indicators are:

  1. Academic achievement status measured by state assessments
  2. Academic growth
  3. Assessment participation rate
  4. Chronic absenteeism
  5. Preparation for postsecondary and career readiness – coursework
  6. Preparation for postsecondary and career readiness – exams
  7. Graduation – on track in 9th grade
  8. Graduation – four year adjusted cohort graduation rate – all students
  9. Graduation – six year adjusted cohort graduation rate – high needs
  10. Postsecondary entrance rate – all students (college enrollment)
  11. Physical fitness
  12. Arts access

The Connecticut State Department of Education believes that the new system will be a better measure of how Connecticut schools are preparing students for success in college, career, and life. 

New Hampshire

New Hampshire is another state exemplifying the flexibility of assessment requirements under ESSA. The state has been implementing aspects of competency-based learning for many years and, prior to the passage of ESSA, had received a waiver to implement its Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) system. This is a limited district pilot that started with just four districts and about 8,000 students. The PACE tests are significantly different from the traditional NCLB end-of-year state tests. Test items are multistep assignments that require students to apply complex, higher-cognitive skills to create original work. This is exactly the type of assessment innovation and experimentation allowable under ESSA. In fact, ESSA allows up to seven states to conduct this type of limited district assessment pilot. New Hampshire is also taking advantage of ESSA testing flexibility to replace its 11th grade state tests with the SAT exam.


Arizona is one more state that is innovating in the area of assessment. Arizona is the first state in the nation to offer what’s been referred to as a “menu” of standardized testing options. The Arizona State Legislature passed a bill in March that will allow districts to use tests other than the AzMERIT (Arizona’s statewide achievement assessment) if they are approved by the Arizona State Board of Education. This flexibility will be rolled out in waves, with approved high schools being able to use tests other than the AzMERIT (like the SAT or ACT tests) during the 2017–18 school year. In the following school year, grades 3–8 will be granted the flexibility to use other tests approved by the state as well. In order to take advantage of this flexibility, districts in Arizona will be required to commit to using tests for multiple years. Schools with a “D” or “F” accountability grade will not be allowed this flexibility and must use the AzMERIT. The Arizona State Board of Education must make scores for all approved tests comparable to AzMERIT data for ESSA accountability reporting. Arizona is piloting this new approach to assessment in a similar fashion to New Hampshire.


Supplement-not-supplant stipulations are a continuation of the NCLB policy designed to maintain local spending levels and ensure equity for disadvantaged students. The policy requires schools and districts to use federal funds to supplement local and state dollars rather than replace them. This ensures that Title I funds are added on top of other funding to raise spending levels for low-income students and works toward parity in the opportunities available to more affluent students. 

Continuing the supplement-not-supplant policy as an ESSA requirement was not controversial at all for the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee. However, the committee’s discussion around new implementation rules was apparently so controversial that no consensus was reached. At the heart of the debate is how to ensure that low-income students have access to high-quality teachers. 

Years of research from groups like the Education Trust show that children in high-poverty schools are about twice as likely as those in more affluent schools to be taught by teachers who hold neither certification nor academic majors in their fields. Civil rights groups are pushing for more detailed accounting of funds, including using actual teacher salary figures rather than general salary ranges to calculate spending levels. This would help ensure that high- poverty schools are recruiting, hiring, and paying equal salaries to teachers in other schools. However, state and district administrators believe that this would be a nightmare to enforce and could require districts to move teachers from one school to another. Because the rules committee couldn’t reach agreement, it will fall to the U.S. Secretary of Education’s office to interpret any new requirements around the supplement-not-supplant policy. U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., has made his position on the issue very clear, saying, "The principle that supplement-not-supplant should ensure that Title I dollars are supplemental is fundamental to the law and fundamental to the civil rights legacy of the law. . . . We've got to get to a place where supplement-not-supplant has real meaning."

It will be important to watch both the U.S. Department of Education and state-level departments of education in the coming months as ESSA policy continues to unfold across the country. Check out the ESSA webpage or the ESSA resource site for the most up-to-date information and documentation.

Interested in learning about Edmentum’s online tools to support next-generation assessment systems? Check out this video on our assessment solutions!


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