Every Student Succeeds Act

First Wave of ESSA Plans Gives Early Look at State Priorities

Templates offered on accountability
By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — April 17, 2017 | Updated: April 19, 2017 5 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act sought to give states flexibility to put their own stamp on accountability systems, including setting their own goals for student achievement and moving beyond reading and math test scores in rating student and school performance.

So how far along are states in taking advantage of all that new running room? The details are just starting to emerge from the handful of plans submitted earlier this month to the U.S. Department of Education, which reveal a varied policy picture across a wide range of accountability categories.

In addition to the District of Columbia, 12 states submitted their plans in early April, the first of two departmental deadlines: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Vermont.

Another three states—Colorado, North Dakota, and Oregon—have finished their plans or are very close. But they are giving their governors and, in some cases, other state leaders time to review them before submitting them by early next month.

But the vast majority of states—more than 30—will submit their plans in the fall. It seems likely that those states will be looking to the early-birds for inspiration, ideas, and to see what flies with the department.

Examining the Plans

It’s unclear how much federal pushback—or scrutiny—states will get on their ESSA plans. The Trump administration has put a premium on local and state control.

Update: Two states, Maine and Massachusetts, said the department had told them that their plans were incomplete. More here.

One of the biggest changes from the No Child Left Behind Act to ESSA is that states will no longer have to demonstrate adequate yearly progress on state exams or show that all students are proficient on those tests by a certain year. Instead, they’ll get to set their own goals for student achievement.

Key Takeaways: State ESSA Plans

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law gives states significant new leeway to set student achievement goals and calls for looking beyond test scores in gauging school performance.


In the District of Columbia, the system wants 85 percent of students to be proficient on its mandatory exams by 2038-39 the vast majority, if not all, of students who will be in the District’s schools that year have not been born yet.

Not all the states’ goals have a single specific number in mind. Delaware, for example, wants to cut in half the share of students who are not proficient on state exams in English/language arts and math by 2030. Massachusetts, however, declined to provide long-term academic goals, citing the lack of baseline scores from new tests it’s giving in 2016-17.

Another big change from the previous law: Under ESSA, states must look beyond the traditional reading and math test scores and factor in some sort of indicator that looks at school quality or student success.

The most popular indicator so far is chronic absenteeism or attendance, which at least eight of the early submitters are considering. Another common choice: college and career readiness, which half a dozen states have incorporated. States are defining this in a variety of ways, including a mix of SAT and ACT scores, career certification, and even postsecondary outcomes.

ESSA also requires states to incorporate four-year graduation rates into their systems. But some states are adding other kinds of graduation rates into the mix as well, including five- and six-year graduation rates. At least three states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois—are looking at whether 9th graders are on track to graduate or taking rigorous courses.

New Mexico is looking at college readiness, including remediation. That grew out of community meetings, said Hanna Skandera, the state schools chief. In particular, she remembered one parent in the remote Four Corners region of the state lamenting that her son had been the valedictorian of his high school, but still needed to catch up before he could take credit-bearing courses in college.

And some of those that have submitted so far picked outside-the-box indicators. The District of Columbia, for example, is using “re-enrollment,” essentially whether parents decide to send their child back to a particular school the next year, given the district’s robust school choice options.

States differed in the number of outside factors they picked. Connecticut, for example, has nine indicators beyond the test scores and graduation rates required under ESSA. New Jersey has just one, chronic absenteeism.

States are also incorporating subjects beyond just reading and math into their plans. Several states are including science. And Delaware is adding both science and social studies to the mix.

Among those that have submitted plans so far, all but Vermont planned to issue schools overall, summative ratings in some fashion.

Their approaches to these ratings also varied. Connecticut would like to use a score based on an index using 0-100 points, while New Mexico and Tennessee plan to issue A-F grades for schools. And Illinois plans to use a four-tiered system to rate schools, from “exemplary” to “lowest-performing.” Vermont will issue five different ratings covering various accountability indicators.

School Improvement

ESSA gives states and districts nearly all control over school improvement. Some states aren’t considering big changes to their current systems, developed under NCLB.

Massachusetts, for instance, is essentially sticking with its strategy of offering extra support to districts with long-struggling schools, with an option of state control for districts that have perennially failed to make progress. The state’s turnaround process is seen by many experts as a national model.

Other states, though, are using ESSA as an opportunity to try something brand new on the school improvement front. Nevada, for instance, is establishing an “achievement school district,” similar to what has been tried in Tennessee. The achievement school district would offer intensive support to up to six long-struggling schools.

But overall, Scott Sargrad, the managing director for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, said he sees a lot of similarities between these initial ESSA plans and the systems states crafted to get waivers from many of the mandates of the NCLB law.

“Generally, things don’t look that different,” said Sargrad, who worked on waivers when he served in the department during the Obama administration.

He thinks that could change as more states file their plans. States could be taking the extra time because they are envisioning big departures from their waivers.

It could be that the later states are the ones that will want to make significant changes to their systems about what to focus on, Sargrad said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as First Wave of ESSA Plans Gives Early Look at State Priorities


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