A Guide to State ESSA Plans: Goals, Teacher Quality, and More

Nearly all states have now laid out their blueprints for how they intend to hold schools accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Here's our review of state ESSA plans.

A Guide to State ESSA Plans: Goals, Teacher Quality, and More

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After more than a year of preparation, the Every Student Succeeds Act is on the verge of hitting classrooms nationwide. And nearly all states have now laid out their blueprints for how they intend to hold schools and districts accountable for requirements of the new federal K-12 law.

ESSA is sparking significant shifts in state autonomy after more than a decade of a heavier federal footprint under the law’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. But getting there hasn’t been a smooth or simple process, as states hammered out detailed plans for ESSA implementation and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education.

To date, all but two states have submitted their plans as required—more than 30 of them flooding into the Education Department this month alone. Another 14 states and the District of Columbia have already gotten the federal green light on plans submitted earlier this spring.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has only 120 days from the time a plan is deemed complete to give a state a thumbs up or down. That means there’s likely to be a spate of approvals late this fall.

And plenty of people will be watching to see how much scrutiny the plans get, including Republicans on Capitol Hill who openly criticized DeVos’ staff for being too heavy-handed with the first round of applications. Civil rights organizations and congressional Democrats, meanwhile worry that the secretary and her team aren’t doing a good job of ensuring states hold schools accountable for the performance of English-language learners, students in special education, racial minorities, and students in poverty.

So what’s inside those ESSA plans, and just what do states intend to do in key policy areas, from school quality to testing and teacher issues? Education Week conducted a preliminary review of the plans, submitted and approved, and found wide variation on a range of key requirements under ESSA.

States’ long-term goals for student achievement, for example, are all over the map, with some setting five- or 10-year goals, and other states looking as far as 15 years ahead. On the other hand, the vast majority of states—more than 40—chose to stick with some kind of school ratings system that gives an overall grade to schools, such as “A” or “F,” or to award schools a certain number of stars or points as a measure of quality.

ESSA also requires states to look beyond test scores in calculating those school ratings, and consider some other factor that gets at school quality or student success. Many advocates had pushed for factors such as grit or growth mindset. But chronic absenteeism and college- and career-readiness were by far the most popular new areas of focus in states’ ESSA plans—each popped up in more than 30 state plans.

Sounding Off

What some players in the education world are saying about states’ ESSA plans.

"The vision was … to have an accountability system which would be a productive system helping schools realize areas where they really need to grow. … We spent an enormous amount [of time] being very deliberative, transparent, and inclusive in the development of our plan."

- MaryEllen Elia, New York State Commissioner of Education

"Overall, it’s not terrible, it’s not great. But I think I would lean towards the side of a little disappointed."

- Brandon Wright, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

"States engaged tons and tons of stakeholders in the development of [these plans]. ... This is actually a plan from the states. And in previous iterations we didn’t have to do that because the federal government was telling us exactly what to put in [plans]."

- Chris Minnich, Council of Chief State School Officers

"Three of the most important things [to] look for in a state ESSA plan to assess whether it’s likely to advance equity are the quality of the indicators ... whether schools are rated based on the performance of each group of students, and whether there are rigorous criteria for when schools and districts have to act to better serve individual groups of students. Among state plans that have been approved so far, many do quite well on the first, but fall far short on the latter two."

- Daria Hall, The Education Trust

State of Play

Here’s where things stand in the federal review process on states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans.


States outlined a wide range of goals and timelines for improving achievement in their ESSA plans.


Some chose fixed goals that aim for all students, and specific groups such as low-income students, to reach the same target. Kansas, for example, aims for 75 percent of all students (and in each subgroup) to score proficient on state tests by 2029-30. States in this category include: Arkansas, Hawaii, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Rhode island, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.


Other states picked relative goals, which means that groups of students who are further behind don’t have to meet the same endpoint as those who start further along. Pennsylvania, for example, expects all students and each subgroup to reduce by half the percent of students scoring below proficient on tests by 2029-30.

States with this type of goal also include: Alaska, California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin.


States also picked a wide range of timelines for meeting their long-term goals. They range from just five years, in Iowa, which expects growth of one-half to 1 percentage points annually for schools and subgroups, to timelines spanning more than a decade. Georgia wants annual, 3 percent improvements in proficiency rates over 15 years.

–Stephen Sawchuk


ESSA requires states to go beyond test scores and graduation rates and to consider some measure of “school quality or student success” in gauging school performance. States have a lot of room to run here, but the vast majority chose in their plans to incorporate chronic absenteeism and/or college-and-career readiness into their school rating systems. Experts say states may have chosen these factors in part because they are relatively easy to measure.


At least 33 states are looking at chronic absenteeism or attendance in some form to hold schools accountable under the new law. New York, Pennsylvannia, and Virginia, for instance, will be consdering chronic absenteeism. And some states chose factors that are related to attendance. California, for instance, is looking at suspensions and discipline rates.


At least 35 states are incorporating some kind of postsecondary-readiness measure, whether that’s ACT scores, SAT scores, dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, career and technical education pathways, a mix of those factors, or something else. For instance, New York is looking at whether students enroll and pass advanced courses, or earn college credit through dual enrollment. And Georgia is considering whether students earn credit through AP or International Baccalaureate courses, or a CTE certification.

–Alyson Klein

School Ratings

ESSA requires states to use two ratings—schools needing “comprehensive” and “targeted” support—for schools falling short in certain areas. Aside from that, the majority of states, at least 42 as well as the District of Columbia, are giving schools some kind of overall score. Some of the ratings overlap or refer to those mandated comprehensive and targeted labels.


Six states (California, Idaho, Oregon, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) want to use a “dashboard” approach to accountability that rates schools based on their performance on things like academic achievement and chronic absenteeism, but does not assign schools a final, summative score. Some states want to use this dashboard approach by displaying schools’ marks on various indicators, but they also want to assign schools a final grade. These states include Arkansas, Kentucky, and New York.


Although giving schools grades on an A-F basis has been a controversial policy in states in recent years, it’s the most popular option for rating schools among states, with 14 planning to do so, including Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. (Many states already use A-F for accountability.) And 12 states plan to use some sort of text or phrase to describe their schools performance. States taking this approach include Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

–Andrew Ujifusa

School Improvement

For the most part, ESSA plans don’t get into exhaustive detail on how states will turn around their lowest performing schools. That’s partly because the U.S. Department of Education isn’t asking for a ton of specifics in that area. The federal government is more interested, at this point, in how states will identify struggling schools. And that will take some time. States won’t start pinpointing schools for what the law calls “comprehensive support” until after the 2017-18 school year.

What’s more, ESSA places most of the responsibility for fixing seriously struggling schools at the district level. States are supposed to monitor districts’ turnaround plans and step in if a school isn’t improving after several years.


States can, however, decide to take a more active role in turnarounds, if they choose to. And it’s clear from the ESSA applications that some states are already planning to do that. Massachusetts, for instance, is sticking with its current system, which allows the state to step in and take control of districts that are in serious academic straits. And Arkansas may help perennially struggling elementary schools improve access to prekindergarten. West Virginia is creating a network of “statistical neighbors” so that high- and lower-performing schools with similar demographics can learn from one another.

–Alyson Klein

Teacher Quality

In their ESSA plans, states were asked to detail how they would spend money under the law’s teacher-quality state grant program. (Most of the grant is passed along to districts, but each state can reserve up to 8 percent of its appropriation.)

States also had to set a definition for an “ineffective” teacher. Florida will so identify teachers who get a final rating of unsatisfactory on the state’s teacher-evaluation system, while California will identify teachers without credentials.


In their plans, states generally outlined ongoing reforms to certification, teacher preparation, and professional development rather than proposing brand-new initiatives.

  • Kentucky will expand a New Teacher Institute geared to help new career and technical education teachers with extensive workplace experience settle into teaching over a two-year period.
  • Wisconsin plans to explore creating a state chapter of Educators Rising, a nonprofit that tries to boost interest in teaching careers among high school students.
  • Rhode Island, although it isn’t using its teacher-quality funds for this purpose, will analyze where chronically absent teachers—those who miss more than 10 percent of the school year—are located, in addition to reviewing equity data on the law’s required categories of ineffective, out-of-field, and inexperienced teachers.

–Stephen Sawchuk


The testing opt-out movement became highly controversial in the last few years. ESSA requires that students who opt out of mandatory exams without permission be scored as nonproficient. However, the law also allows states to have their own laws regarding test participation. States are taking a variety of approaches to address the issue.


At least a dozen states plan to directly reduce a school’s overall score if the school does not meet the threshold of testing 95 percent of eligible students. These include Connecticut, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

Within this group, states are taking various approaches. New Mexico wants to reduce the score of a school by one letter grade on its A-F rating system if it misses the 95 percent participation threshold.


In at least a few states where opt-out has been relatively popular, states don’t propose the same kind of penalties. In Colorado, schools missing the 95 percent participation threshold would have to develop a plan to address it and distribute information about the tests to the public. But the state’s ESSA proposal doesn’t outline any stronger penalty for those schools.

–Andrew Ujifusa

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as State ESSA Plans: One-Stop Guide