What Do We Know About ESSA Compliance Now?  The facts, question marks, and agenda of what is to come.


What Do We Know About ESSA Compliance Now? The facts, the question marks, and the agenda of what is to come.Since 2002, the federal education law that focuses on providing all children with a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education has been a heated topic, both for education professionals and the lay-person alike. While NCLB’s original shelf life was seven years, it’s been on the books for twice that long — and it was so controversial that many are happy to see it go.

NCLB was actually the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law passed more than 50 years ago in 1965. Like the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) before it, NCLB was an amendment to that law, even though both involved major rewritings of the original legislature.

This time, the next amendment to go into effect is ESSA — the Every Student Succeeds Act, or technically The Elementary and Secondary Education Act as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act — which President Obama signed into law on December 10, 2015. ESSA was considered to be a fairly bipartisan and a balanced revision of the law. However, while states and districts generally view revisions as movement in a positive direction, there is a certain amount of anxiety about its implementation.

There are many questions about the implementation of the ESSA. This is partially due to the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act (passed 8 days after the ESSA was signed into law), which postponed implementation of the ESSA until the 2017-2018 school year and left us with the 2016-2017 school year as a transition year between the two amendments to the ESEA. Many question marks remain as to what will change, and how, and when. As a result, schools and districts are doing their best to understand the facts, stay compliant, and prepare for the next steps.

Here’s what we know about ESSA compliance and how your school, district, or state can get off to a good start in 2016/2017 and beyond.

The facts: what we know

While NCLB put a lot of power in the hands of the federal government, ESSA seeks to swing the pendulum back toward states, giving them more responsibility in terms of testing, teacher qualifications, and fixing failing schools. Although there is a general consensus that empowering local education agencies (LEA) with the ability to define and manage their results is a positive direction, there are many ambiguities around how this will actually look. Here are a few things we know:

The law goes into effect in the 2017/2018 school year

There won’t be full implementation of ESSA regulations until 2017/2018 school year. That means that the 2016-2017 school year is a transition year between NCLB and ESSA. However, a lot can change in that time — especially with a presidential election on the horizon.

ESSA-related changes will amend other laws prior to the 2018 school year

Over the course the 2016-17 school year, the ESSA will amend other laws in addition to the ESEA, such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The McKinney-Vento Act ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth, with federally required changes as early as October 2016. IDEA is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation.

Changes made to these laws must be implemented in the timeframe originally outlined in the ESSA because these laws were not affected by the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act changes. For districts, this means a school year of rapidly shifting requirements in addition to the ambiguity of the 2017-2018 ESSA transition.

States are responsible for their own accountability systems

ESSA makes it the responsibility of states to design state accountability plans. Drafts of these accountability plans must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (USED) by one of two deadlines: March or July of 2017.

ESSA makes each state responsible for designing their own accountability systems, but requires them to look at a broader range of factors in doing so. With that in mind, there are four primary indicators that must be described in a state accountability plan:

  • An indicator for measures of proficiency for the state’s annual content assessment
  • Another academic indicator when it comes to determining student success, such as graduation rates or measures of student growth
  • An indicator of an English learner’s progress toward English proficiency
  • A measure of school quality or student success

Requirements for teachers have changed

Under NCLB, teachers needed to be highly qualified with a bachelor’s degree in their subject, plus state certification. Under ESSA teacher qualification requirements have changed from the federal Highly Qualified requirements under NCLB to state requirements for teacher certification and licensure.

School improvement status

We also know that, in the 2016/2017 school year, school improvement status will remain the same. For instance, a Title I school that was identified as a “school in improvement,” will maintain that status for the 2016/2017 school year. If you’re a priority school, you’ll remain as such. Essentially, the statuses will be frozen in terms of accountability.

Question Marks: what we still don’t know

Before the 2017/2018 school year, districts and schools are playing the waiting game. They are waiting to see what their state is going to do, and learning the structure of their accountability systems. Ideally, states are asking schools for their input, including the feedback of teachers, administrators, parents, and a host of other stakeholders.

The fact is, we don’t yet know exactly what these state accountability plans will look like. And while the USED has issued proposed regulations on state accountability plans, Congress may come back and revoke them. The ambiguity remains in terms of what the state plans will look like, and whether Congress will change the requirements USED has proposed for them.

The relationship between the current administration and Congress

While ESSA has tipped the scales toward the states in terms of giving them more responsibility for developing their education programs that are funded with federal money, the guidance that has so far come out of the USED appears to be leaning back in favor of federal control. If this is the case, it’s unclear which regulations will remain intact.

Looking ahead: what is to come

Based on what we know, any decisions about school accountability and improvement, as well as teacher qualifications, have to be made by states. They could choose to stick with the status quo, or they could go a different direction. While big changes could be coming our way, it is ultimately unknown.

We do know that parent notice requirements will continue to be part of the law. Additional guidance and regulations around how to remain compliant under ESSA is still to come, and has a lot to do with how Congress and the administration will look at the end of 2016 — especially with regards to the presidential election. With a change in administration, even within the same party, incoming administration will look at any regulations and guidance published within the last year and decide what to retain. Even regulations and guidance that have been passed could be altered.

In addition to the administrative changeover, it takes time to acclimate new people to new positions. The March deadline for state accountability plans may not be enough time considering new administrators will have had only three months in office.

Generally speaking, we know some important things about how ESSA plans to turn over a good deal of educational accountability to states. However, in terms of federal guidelines and potential changes with incoming administration, much of the ambiguity remains to be cleared up.

Looking to stay up-to-date with federal and state compliance standards? Want to understand the main benefits of compliance software for school districts? Learn how TransACT will work as your compliance partner in the months and years ahead.

Contact Us

Dr. David Holbrook

About The Author

Dr. David Holbrook is a nationally recognized leader in federal programs administration and monitoring with expertise in Title I, Title III, Native American Education, and Federal Programs. Dr. Holbrook has also worked as a consultant with Title III of the US Department of Education and now serves as Executive Director, Federal Compliance and State Relationships with TransAct.