Analysis: Testing. Suspensions. College-Level Work. 3 Areas Where ESSA Could Mean Big Changes for Teachers and Students

It’s been two years since Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. States have developed plans to meet the demands of the law, but how will it make a difference in classrooms? What impact will students and teachers actually feel?

The short answer: Not much, but not nothing.

In a recent piece published in The 74, experts predicted Five Ways America’s New Education Law Will Improve the Average School Day:

Prediction 1: Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year: Better classroom leaders — and more freedom for them to measure the “whole child”

Prediction 2: Alice Johnson Cain, Teach Plus: Teachers who are even more focused on helping every one of their students grow

Prediction 3: Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas: A deeper commitment in better serving English language learners

Prediction 4: Rashidah Morgan, Education First: Greater transparency about school quality, which will ultimately empower parents to make more knowledgeable choices about schools

Prediction 5: Virginia Gentles, senior adviser for education reform policy and advocacy organizations: Clearer school ratings that will better inform parents and incentivize educators to do better

All these predictions reflect aspirations of the new law, but it’s a stretch to expect any of it to actually happen. Most teachers would probably argue that they’re already very focused on helping all their students grow, so changing how students are measured and counted in state accountability plans isn’t likely to have much of an impact if those teachers aren’t given specific guidance on what to change. Greater transparency and clearer school ratings may help to engage parents (if done well, which is to be seen), but their effect on the classroom will be indirect at best.

States got a lot more flexibility to innovate under ESSA, but virtually none of them have taken advantage of it. For the most part, states are tinkering at the fringes of their existing plans, if they’re changing them at all. Florida, for example, is largely shoehorning its existing plan (which is arguably a good one) into the requirements of the new law.

The people most likely to feel any real impact are those who’ll have to collect data and file reports to district, state, and federal education offices. Unfortunately, what we’re mostly likely to see is largely a bureaucratic impact.

So, what is likely to change?

Less testing

States like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida have started reducing the number of tests or testing days. There are arguments for how much or how little the new federal law has to do with that. Many states had already been moving in that direction legislatively before their plans were drafted, but it is certainly in line with ESSA.

Less testing means a little more time teachers can use for teaching. And if states cut back on testing in smart ways (e.g., getting rid of redundant and obsolete exams), it means schools can still have meaningful accountability and less resistance to, and less general hatred toward, tests.

Bigger push toward college-level work

Many states have written college-readiness goals and measurements into their state plans, but nailing down what that means can vary. It could be test scores on entrance exams like the ACT or SAT, or how many high school kids are doing college-level work (think dual enrollment, AP courses, or IB programs).

Depending on the specifics of a plan, schools may have an incentive to steer more students to these programs and into taking college entrance exams. The best-case scenario would be that schools help educators change or improve their teaching methods and support students so more of them are prepared for college-level work. It would also change the mindset of educators who deny opportunities to certain students because they see them as unfit. Maybe some of these plans will blow a hole in those mental barricades and allow educators to recommend more students to these programs.

I’m not terribly optimistic that the best-case scenario will play out, but I do think there will at least be a greater push to move students in that direction.

Fewer suspensions

Some states, like Tennessee and New York, are calculating the number of out-of-school suspensions into their accountability plans.

In states where schools will get dinged for having too many suspensions (or where certain suspensions are explicitly outlawed, as has been proposed in Ohio), expect to see fewer of them and different approaches to addressing behavior issues.

What’s less clear is how teachers and principals will respond in states where suspensions are counted, and reported publicly, but not factored into a school’s rating.

I wish there were more, but as far as direct impact on the classroom — differences that teachers and students will actually feel — that’s about it. Sure, the bottom 5 percent of schools will have some kind of intervention, but what that intervention will be is largely undefined in most states. For the other 95 percent of schools, ESSA will have no impact at all.

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