Timeline: How Federal School Accountability Has Waxed and Waned

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 11, 2022 4 min read
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The genesis of federal school accountability is still much debated.

Was it the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which began the Title I grant program and spurred a new field of education program evaluation? Was it the 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk,” a federal report that alarmingly warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in U.S. schools?

Was it the famous Charlottesville, Va., summit, in 1989, during which the nation’s governors agreed that setting educational goals was paramount? Or was it an inevitable product of state innovation—an extension of the work of states like Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Texas that in the early 1990s began setting up their own state testing systems to measure how well students grasp academic content standards?

Whatever their analysis of those factors, most scholars agree that 1994, the year in which Congress first wrote specific accountability requirements covering all states into federal law, was the tipping point.

The pandemic could be yet another one. After a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented disruptions, federal accountability is starting up again—but not without questions about whether it can meet the moment.

Here is a timeline of the most significant milestones in federal school accountability, with plenty of links for you to explore.


Congress passes the Improving America’s Schools Act, a rewrite of the ESEA. In what is still probably the biggest shift in the federal approach to K-12 schools, the law requires every state to set academic content standards in reading and math, test students’ mastery of them in three grade levels, and makes them break out the data by subpopulations, such as those who are disadvantaged or learning English.

But states generally drag their feet in meeting the law’s requirements, and many states’ testing systems aren’t up and running until well into the 2000s—in some cases, after IASA’s successor was passed.


President George W. Bush releases a plan for improving schools modeled on Texas’ 1993 annual assessment approach; he calls the plan No Child Left Behind. He signs largely similar legislation with that title, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, on Jan. 8, 2002, replacing the previous law. The new law significantly toughens up accountability and introduces teacher-quality requirements. Now, schools must test every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

The law also requires states to set annual goals for schools and for groups within those schools. Schools that don’t meet these targets have to spend some of their federal funding on things like tutoring, transportation to other public schools, and other improvement efforts.


Fielding many complaints about the NCLB law’s rigidity, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings grants the first waiver under the law to four Virginia districts, allowing them to flip the order of two required interventions. The move comes several months after her announcement that she will entertain flexibility requests from states if student achievement is trending upward.

Other flexibilities ultimately include allowing some states to introduce alternative measures of student progress and ways of measuring test performance for some students with disabilities.

President George W. Bush, left, participates in the swearing-in ceremony for the Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, center, at the U.S. Dept. of Education on Jan. 31, 2005 in Washington. On the far right holding a bible is her husband Robert Spellings.


Overseeing a law that is getting creakier and increasingly unpopular as states identify more schools for improvement, the Obama administration under Education Secretary Arne Duncan creates a waiver process. States that want additional flexibility from the NCLB law must agree to make some changes, including updating content standards and overhauling teacher-evaluation systems. The changes generally reflect the administration’s priorities for its voluntary $4 billion Race to the Top grant. By 2012, more than half of states have received waivers.

President-elect Barack Obama looks on as his Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan speaks during a news conference in Chicago in this Dec. 16, 2008 file photo.


In December, Congress passes the next iteration of the federal law, now dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. It returns many decisions to the states, including the indicators they use for identifying schools needing help. Annual testing goals no longer have to count toward school identification, and states and districts design the interventions for schools that fall behind.


The COVID-19 pandemic completely interrupts federal accountability. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces broad waivers from ESSA’s testing and accountability requirements for the 2019-20 year.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, at the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix.


Education Secretary Miguel Cardona permits states to bid for one-year changes to their test systems, including timing and participation rates, for 2020-21. They must still give the tests and report some information on school report cards. Accountability requirements are suspended for a second year.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.


The Education Department finalizes new guidance allowing states to move their timelines for some goals and interventions, but all schools must return to giving assessments and identifying schools needing help in the fall.


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