Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, responds to the recent political controversy surrounding federal endorsement of academic standards, specifically Common Core.
Under ESSA, federal officials cannot require, endorse, or provide incentives for the adoption of any specific set of standards, including Common Core. What is a standard? Standards outline what students need to know, understand, and be able to do.
Background and History
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA, of 1965, ensured that all states had rigorous standards for all subject areas and grade levels. In effort to reform education in 1994, the Clinton Administration enacted a standards based vision, Improving of America’s Schools Act, IASA. Seven years later, in 2001, the Clinton’s “standards based vision” on education reform moved forward by the Bush Administration with the passing of No Child Left Behind, NCLB. The standards movement resulted in NCLB, which required that states make yearly progress towards having all students be proficient by 2014, as evidenced by annual standardized testing.
In response to growing public disapproval with NCLB as the deadline approached without any state being able to reach this goal, the Obama administration began granting waivers to states exempting them from NCLB testing requirements. The waivers, linked to various reforms, such as the adoption of a national curriculum, of which the Common Core was the only one. In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law devolving many of NCLB’s testing requirements to the states.
Previously, NCLB required state standards in reading, math and science (added in 2012) at all grade levels. In contrast, ESSA requires assurance that states adopt challenging academic content standards in reading, math and science with three (3) levels of achievement aligned for credit-bearing coursework in the states’ higher education system; as well as, the state’s career and technical education standards. The difference is that challenging means what the states want it to mean. The Secretary of Education and peer reviewers are strictly prohibited from reviewing the content of state standards, as the state does not have to submit the standards for review or approval, prohibited in section 1111(b)(1)(A) under the new law.
Further, the Secretary of Education cannot require a state to add to or delete from its standards, or interfere with state standards, as dictated by section 1111(e)(1)(B)(ii) in the new law. In section 8527(d), there is an explicit prohibition on any federal approval or certification of standards.
ESSA allows states to adopt standards in other subjects. One federal requirement that has not changed is that states are still required to have academic standards in order to receive federal education funds. Although the Common Core Standards did not cover science and social studies content standards, in 2012, the Next Generation Science Standards have been adopted by many states. These standards are not directly related to the Common Core, but their context is cross/connected to the mathematics and English Language Arts standards within the Common Core.
NCLB required states to apply the same academic standards to all schools and children. ESSA allows states to develop alternate academic achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities using a documented and validated standards-setting process.
Under ESSA, state standards have to be aligned so that the end point of the state standards in k-12 is aligned with the entrance requirements for the public system of higher education and career and technical state standards. Logically, both students and parents expect that after graduating from high school that the student is prepared to go on to higher education or career and technical education. Each student deserves access to a credible, comprehensive, and well-rounded education that includes instruction in all academic content areas. States’ standards, accountability systems, and public reporting of student performance must reflect these subjects.
Common Core advocates are saying that ESSA “locks in” Common Core (standards written that outlined what students were expected to know and to be able to do at each grade level AND implemented assessments designed to measure whether students were meeting the standards), but that information is simply not true. In the past, states initially agreed to adopt the Common Core Standards through the possibility of competitive federal “Race to the Top” grants. The grants were awarded based on points earned for student/teacher performance and meeting goals for student outcomes; however, the use of common performance standards was required to enter the race for grants. This resulted in schools within the states competing to win grants, and it became the norm for teachers to “teach to the test” by instructing students with only the criteria necessary to pass the tests.
There are all sorts of ways a state could set their standards under ESSA. Some states will keep the Common Core (whether admitting to it or trying to rebrand it). Some states will keep only parts of Common Core and make changes in areas. Some states will completely abandon Common Core and adopt their own system or work together with a smaller group of states to develop something that works for them. It is purely a state decision.
What Congress eliminated were the mandates in the waivers, the incentives in the Race to the Top, and/or any other method of coercing or incentivizing the adoption of Common Core standards or any particular set of standards deemed “acceptable” by Washington bureaucrats. The law is clear – no officer or employee of the federal government can mandate, direct, or control a state’s standards; however, states can enter voluntary partnerships to develop and implement standards.
Until ESSA was passed in December 2015, the US Department of Education had encouraged states to adopt the Common Core Standards by tying the grant of waivers from NCLB to adoption of the Standards. ESSA not only replaced NCLB, it also expressly prohibits the Department of Education from attempting to “influence, incentivize, or coerce state adoption of the Common Core State Standards … or any other academic standards common to a significant number of states.
Now it is up to states to decide what to do, without any interference from Washington. For those concerned about Common Core, the responsibility falls to them to keep an eye on what their state decides to do, ESSA restores responsibility to state and local leaders about educational decisions. If a state decides to move away from Common Core, they don’t have to call Washington and ask permission—they can just do it.