Understanding ESSA

By Candace Cortiella

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was signed into law last December, putting an end to the contentious No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of ESEA enacted in 2002. Scheduled for full implementation in the 2017-2018 school year, ESSA has critical components important to the achievement of students with learning disabilities.

Similar to requirements in No Child Left Behind, all states will:

  • Adopt challenging academic content standards in math, reading/language arts, and science along with academic achievement standards aligned with those content standards. The standards must apply to all public schools and public school students in the state, including students with disabilities.
  • Implement a set of high-quality assessments in math and reading or language arts administered in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 9 through 12; and in science, administered at least one time during grades 3 through 5, grades 6 through 9, and grades 10 through 12. All students, including students with IEPs, must participate in these assessments at their enrolled grade level. (There’s an exception for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.)
  • Break down the results of student performance on these state assessments by subgroups including major racial and ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, English proficiency status, gender, and migrant status at the state, district and school level.
  • Set ambitious goals for all students and for each subgroup of students for improved academic achievement on the annual assessments and for improvement in high school graduation rates. These goals must take into account the improvement necessary to make significant progress in closing statewide proficiency and graduation rate gaps for subgroups of students who are behind.
  • Devise an accountability system that will be used to judge all schools in the state and identify schools most in need of reform. The same system must apply to all subgroups of students, including those with disabilities.
  • Issue annual public report cards at the state and district levels providing results of all components of the accountability system plus lots of other information. Understanding this information will be essential to knowing how students with disabilities are doing.
Issues for Students with LD

There are a couple of important components that could hamper the impact these requirements have on students with disabilities:

  • Test Participation. ESSA dramatically changes the test participation requirement of NCLB. Specifically, schools and districts were required to include at least 95% of all students and each student subgroup, including students with disabilities, BEFORE the achievement of students could be considered in the accountability system (known as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP). Now, under ESSA, the participation requirement (called Annual Measurement of Achievement”) can be as muscular or meaningless as a state decides it will be within the accountability system.
  • Minimum Subgroup Size. ESSA continues the NCLB provision that allows each state to set the minimum number of students required in a subgroup before that subgroup’s achievement is included in a school’s performance. History shows that many states set unreasonably high subgroup sizes resulting in many schools escaping accountability for students with disabilities. Unless subgroup sizes set under ESSA are more justifiable, many students with disabilities will continue to be left out of the accountability system.

For a detailed analysis of ESSA’s implications for students with disabilities, visit www.advocacyinstitute.org/ESSA/SWDanalysis.shtml

Candace Cortiella, Director of the Advocacy Institute, is a leading policy consultant and advocate for students with disabilities. She is the author of the IDEA Parent Guide, a comprehensive guide to parental rights and responsibilities under the IDEA.