NCLB is on Death’s Door: Meet its Likely Replacement, the ESSA

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 30, 2015

As reported earlier on Green & Write, legislation to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been inching towards passage. More than four months after both chambers of Congress passed separate pieces of legislation to replace NCLB, key legislative players announced two weeks ago that they had reached a compromise to reconcile the two bills in a conference committee. This past week, the conference committee met and drafted a piece of legislation that sailed through on a 39-1 vote. The resultant legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is expected to hit the floor of both chambers this week for final voting.

While the House and Senate bills had a number of similarities, there were many differences between the two bills that had to be reconciled before NCLB could be replaced. (A more thorough description of the similarities and differences can be found here). The ESSA represents a healthy compromise between the House and Senate bills – and one that dials back the federal role in education significantly. To assist our readers following this issue, a summary of the major points of the ESSA can be found in the sections below. The editors of Green & Write will continue to report on this bill as it moves forward.

The sun is setting on NCLB. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The sun is setting on NCLB. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


Key Provisions of the ESSA

Accountability and Low-Performing Schools

On accountability, the ESSA reflects the broad areas of agreement between the House and Senate bills. States would still have to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics and make public the disaggregated test score results. However, the current accountability system (known as annual yearly progress, or AYP) would be eliminated, and states would be able to determine how much standardized test scores will count in their accountability regimes. States would also be encouraged to incorporate other “softer” factors into their accountability systems, such as measures of school climate or safety.

When it comes to state interventions in low-performing schools, the ESSA actually goes further on accountability than either the House or Senate bill did. The ESSA requires states to identify and intervene in the bottom 5% of schools as well as “dropout factories” – schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate. It does not, however, specify what remedies should be used in the case of an intervention.

Additionally, the legislation would provide more flexibility when it comes to interventions for subgroup failures. Under NCLB, if even a single subgroup of students (e.g. racial minorities, English-language learners, or special education students) performs below expectations, the entire school is labeled a failure and subject to sanctions. Under the ESSA, states would still be required to identify and intervene in schools where subgroup populations appear to be struggling, but the legislation does not specify what exactly constitutes “struggling” or how the states should intervene in these cases.


The biggest difference between the two bills originally revolved around the issue of “portability.” The House bill essentially converted Title I of the law (which disburses most of the federal education money) into a voucher program, allowing federal dollars to follow students to any public school of their choice. The Senate bill did not allow this. As expected, this provision was deleted from the ESSA since Democrats would have surely voted en masse against the legislation if it remained.   In an olive branch to pro-school choice conservatives, though, the ESSA does include a pilot project that would permit districts to bundle some federal dollars with state and local funds and use them in a school choice context.


One of the biggest issues with accountability right now involves efforts by some parents to keep their students at home on test day, essentially “opting out” their children from their state’s accountability program. On this issue, the ESSA allows states to create their own opt-out laws, but it also preserves a federal requirement that schools have a 95% participation rate in annual standardized tests. If a school were to fail to reach the 95% threshold under the ESSA, it would be up to the state and/or local district to decide what sanctions (if any) should be imposed. This represents a shift from current policy, which automatically labels as a failure any school in which fewer than 95% of students are tested.

Testing Innovation

Both the House and Senate bills included provisions allowing local districts to experiment with new, innovative assessments so long as they secure the approval of the U.S. Department of Education. The ESSA carries forth this idea, setting up a pilot program which would permit a handful of states, with the consent of the U.S. Department of Education, the opportunity to experiment with local testing. The hope is that this piloting would allow districts to try out exams that might then be adopted statewide in the future.

Program Consolidation

As in the House bill, many categorical programs in NCLB are converted into block grants, including programs for physical education and advanced placement. One categorical program that survived, however, was an early-childhood program long sought by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). It represents the first time that resources for preK have been enshrined in the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act.


Contact David:

The following two tabs change content below.
David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.