ESSA Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 and Special Ed

ESSA creates more flexibility in schools. Safe Kids Kansas

In 2007 the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) was up to be renewed but failed to find support in either the Democratic or Republic parties.  Also known and NCLB (No Child Left Behind, or NiCkeLBy) it became increasingly unpopular because of unrealistic expectations, rigid regulations and the removal of decision making from local school authorities and states.  Of course, there were legitimate reasons for the federal legislation, even if it was ill conceived and often had unexpected consequences.


The Purpose, Promise and Problems of No Child Left Behind. 

Purpose:  Clearly, at the turn of the century American Schools were failing American children.  The drop out rate was rising, children were being automatically promoted without mastering grade level skills and the gap between children in middle class, suburban communities and children of color in urban areas was growing, both in reading proficiency, graduation and acceptance into four year institutions of higher learning.  Improving education was goal of the George W. Bush administration, whose administration authored and passed the bill. 

Promise:  The 2001 bill intended to use Title One funding to push forward a number of initiatives to improve outcomes and improve access to better teachers and resources.  The bill did not significantly improve outcomes for all children, but some results include:

  • Improved graduation rates;
  • Declining drop out rate.
  • Increase in the number of students attending college.

Problems:  The 2001 ESEA (No Child Left Behind) was overly prescriptive, and tended to use punishment for school that didn’t meet their Adequate Yearly Progress goal.  Those skills had to inform parents so they could transfer their students to other schools in the same district that did meet their AYP.


Schools and school districts found ways to evade the requirements of Adequate Yearly Progress by making improvements in grade by grade reading and math proficiency small in the early years and expanded it in later years.  Massachusetts may have been the only state to approach meeting their statewide goals--all the others were grievously behind.   States found ways to skirt the intent of the law by dumbing down the state high stakes tests.  States with historically bad education had huge gaps between their state tests and the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress)  a test designed to measure students across the country against their peers.  That gap tends to reflect the fact as the state reports improving proficiency that is not matched on the NAEP.

Unreasonable Expectations:  The cornerstone of No Child Left Behind was the promise that all children would be proficient by the end of third grade in reading and math by 2014.  Didn't happen. 

The belief that all children could be proficient without providing sufficient funding, well trained educators and the economic and emotional stability that many middle class children enjoy was at best specious, at the worst a terrible deception.

  Only one percent of students with disabilities were

Cheating; School districts, teachers and principals were all found cheating.  When I was teaching in Philadelphia I was sent to support another teacher with middle school students taking the high stakes test so the principal and the special ed supervisor could coach my students through their tests and improve their scores.  As we have so often discovered, when either a stick or a carrot is provided, teachers and principals will seek to fudge the data. 

Like Rod Paige, George W. Bushes first Secretary of Education, who created the "Texas Miracle" by indirectly encouraging principals to cheat.  He first took away the principals rights to be represented by a union and made them "at will."  In other words, they could be fired at the will of the superintendent.

  He directed the principals to reduce dropouts to one percent.  Many of the schools reported a one percent drop out rate, even though there were significantly fewer juniors and seniors than freshmen.  Another part of the "Texas Miracle" was improvement in tests scores.  That was achieved by redirecting students with academic challenges into special GED and diversion programs where their scores were not aggregated with the general education population. 

Punishment:  NCLB provided districts with the opportunity to assign blame and punishment, especially to administrators and teachers.  That, in turn has lead to cheating, and teachers and administrators have lost their jobs and certification for coaching students and providing answers.

Teaching and real education have often suffered because the emphasis on testing and test performance.  Those districts or state that have tried to tie teacher compensation to student performance have seen greater focus on test preparation than on teaching.  Ironically, the states and politicians who have most demonized the Common Core State Standards have done so because they are not amenable to filling the bubbles on a standardized test. 

Changes to the ESEA in the Every Student Succeeds Act

More Discretion to the States and School Districts

Accountability: Tests are no longer to be linked to important (high stakes) decisions.  The ESSA provides funding for local tests that are linked to local outcomes rather than state standards.  The ESSA Eliminates Adequate Yearly Progress, so it no longer hangs over the heads of administrators and by extension teachers.

States are, however, required to test students to provide evidence that children in different populations are receiving instruction that meets their needs.  The ESSA continues to limit participation in alternate tests to one percent of the whole population, so districts and states do not find artificial ways to improve student performance by removing students who are struggling. When states permit,  parents can also choose to "opt out" so their children are not required to participate in the testing.

The Opportunity Dash Board

Student test scores were the total measure of whether a school was successful in No Child Left Behind.  The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to include measures of school quality to their accountability standards from the “Opportunity Dash Board” which includes student, teacher engagement and school climate.  Obviously (to me, a teacher who has worked in both positive and negative settings) these measures also provide some sense of whether the school environment will encourage growth and learning.

The ESSA and Special Education

The ESSA recognizes the importance of the IDEIA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004) in laying out the rights of children with disabilities and their families, as well as providing the framework (the IEP) for appropriate interventions.  Still, the other legal requirements stay in place, such as Least Restrictive Environment and Free and Appropriate Public Education. 

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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "ESSA Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 and Special Ed." ThoughtCo, Apr. 29, 2016, Webster, Jerry. (2016, April 29). ESSA Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 and Special Ed. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "ESSA Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 and Special Ed." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 11, 2017).