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Every Student Succeeds Act

How Will ESSA Hold Up During COVID-19? Pandemic Tests the Law’s Resilience

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 16, 2020 6 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act was enacted in 2015 after years of painstaking negotiations and compromise. But one thing the people who wrote it didn’t include in the law, or talk about when they wrote it, was how it would be affected by a pandemic.

As the coronavirus surges nationwide, some schools that had reopened for in-person instruction, or planned to, are reconsidering their options. Children who haven’t swapped out public schools for other choices, or dropped off the radar altogether, still face major disruptions. And the pandemic has wrought huge changes if not chaos on educators in terms of where they can direct their time and energy.

The main federal K-12 law focuses on accountability, but otherwise doesn’t engage in a lot of micromanagement of how schools work. It has a limited amount of power by design. Will that structure help it endure? And how, and how much pressure could the pandemic put on the law’s assumptions and foundations?

Domino Effects

One general theme to keep in mind is that ESSA isn’t particularly old. Not all state ESSA plans were approved by the U.S. Department of Education until late 2017. Roughly three years after the law passed, school report cards mandated by ESSA were still rolling out. There’s been a similar timeline for school spending reports required by the law. As late as last year, the department was giving the green light to ESSA assessment pilots.

That’s one main reason why it’s unlikely that Congress will rewrite ESSA any time soon; technically, it’s been up for reauthorization since December 2019. In that sense, ESSA as a statute seems safe.

The greatest short-term stress test will involve assessments. Last spring, states got waivers from the department and didn’t have to give ESSA-mandated exams. Whether to waive the tests again will be one of the major questions President-elect Joe Biden’s Education Department will face. Shortly before Election Day, his campaign did not commit to granting those testing waivers.

Those tests are at the heart of the law. But the law’s accountability mandates stretch beyond them. It governs which schools must receive more attention and action from states and districts, which student receive intensive academic interventions, and what goals states have for student achievement and improvement, among other things.

Even if the Education Department declines to grant blanket testing waivers, it’s doubtful states seeking flexibility would walk away empty-handed. For example, at the most general level, states could get permission to “freeze” school ratings altogether once again and to hit pause any consequences for schools from those test results. Such a pause would affect the 2021-22 school year.

The department’s power to grant waivers from ESSA isn’t absolute. But it’s theoretically possible that states and federal officials’ negotiations over what’s incorporated into such flexibility could become detailed and extensive. It’s important to remember that state leaders have been highlighting the importance of assessment, but not necessarily ESSA-mandated exams and consequences under traditional accountability systems.

ESSA doesn’t mandate annual updates for key data points—states need only revise the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools in the state only once every three years, for example. So it’s hard to judge exactly what impact an accountability freeze of two years—or longer—would have for struggling schools and students during a pandemic. To the extent schools surmount the unprecedented challenges stemming from COVID-19, some education officials might decide that one lesson from the pandemic is how little those considerations mattered compared to other stresses on the system.

“If you have enough time without this data and accountability, the argument becomes: ‘Oh, we did fine without testing,’” said Dale Chu, an independent education consultant and former Indiana education department official. “The winds seem to be blowing in that direction.”

ESSA is meant to highlight schools and students that need more attention and resources. In its own unprecedented, acute, and urgent fashion, the pandemic has also underscored inequities in education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that ESSA and COVID-19 are highlighting the needs of the same schools and students in the same way. Schools that need help now but didn’t before the pandemic might not have access to certain money that states set aside under Title I for improvement purposes, for example.

“It’s quite possible that the data the states were looking at before aren’t fully capturing the biggest pain points and the biggest concerns” during the pandemic, said Anne Hyslop, a former Educaion Department official during the Obama administration who’s now an assistant director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

As for states’ blueprint for identifying and helping schools and students in need, Hyslop noted, “Some of the strategies and plans you had selected were contingent on in-person instruction. They weren’t created with the pandemic in mind.”

Other federal activities also play a role here. The pandemic’s impact on Census 2020, and in the turn the role the census plays in how much money schools get through ESSA programs, Hyslop said, is worth watching.

And the Education Department could face a great deal of pressure on its time and resources that could push monitoring compliance with the law, even where its requirements haven’t been temporarily waived, down the list of priorities.

‘Really in the Weeds’

Graduation rates are another important factor in ESSA accountability systems. So is a measurement of postsecondary readiness, and “opportunity to learn” measurements like school climate that were new to federal accountability. How these factors will be measured, adjusted, or sidelined is a story that could take months if not years to play out.

Consider, for example, how ESSA drew more national attention to chronic absenteeism. It was a significant shift in federal policy for ESSA to allow states to include that factor in official judgments of their schools’ performance. The pandemic has only intensified interest in that issue for obvious reasons and posed a major challenge to addressing it. So the law might have played a key precursory role in schools’ work to address student absenteeism and attendance, even though it’s not driving attention to those issues the way the coronavirus has.

What will that mean for how the issue plays into ESSA accountability and related policy debates?

In a report for Bellwether Education Partners released last month estimating that 3 million students have gone “missing” during the pandemic, Hailly T.N. Korman, Bonnie O’Keefe, and Matt Repka wrote that in response, education leaders “must develop and implement attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of students’ unmet needs—and avoid punitive approaches that exacerbate those needs.”

“State and federal government leaders need to provide guidance, funding, and resources for schools and other social services to support these plans,” the three authors also stated.

There’s a growing recognition in states that they need to be as flexible as they can be to address new circumstances, said Sara Kerr, who works at Results for America and has studied states’ efforts to use evidence to improve schools under ESSA.

She also said that the pandemic is underscoring “the limits to which schools can solve some of those inequities” on their own, and how those limits should drive attention to factors that ESSA didn’t really emphasize, like students’ access to internet and how many parents in a household are able to work from home.

“The districts and schools in particular are really in the weeds,” Kerr said.

If a search for new solutions and data points incorporates new emphasis on evidence-based policies, Kerr said, it could produce helpful results. It’s possible the authors of ESSA as well as its proponents might be pleased by some attempts by educators to seek flexible solutions to pressing problems, even if they didn’t anticipate what precisely those problems would be.

Photo: President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)