The ESSA and Public Opinion

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 25, 2016

Long-time Washington D.C. lobbyist Tom Korologos once quipped: “The things Congress does best are nothing and overreacting.” In many ways, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was an enormous federal overreaction to the problem of stagnating educational achievement. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), by comparison, is a long overdue legislative correction of that initial overreaction. While the regulations for the law are still being written, the ESSA promises to scale back the federal role in education and pull the nation away from its overly narrow focus on standardized test scores. By walking back some of the most uncompromising and bullheaded aspects of NCLB’s test-based accountability program, the ESSA appears to many to be a step forward.

President Obama signs the ESSA while surrounded by key legislators and children skipping school.

President Obama signs the ESSA while surrounded by key legislators and children skipping school. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Yet, before offering a verdict on any new public policy, it is always worth asking if it reflects the desires of the American people. In other words, if the public were to gather together in Central Park to craft a replacement to NCLB, would the new policy bear any resemblance to the ESSA?

What the Polls Say

To answer that question, I looked through two sources of public opinion data about American education. The first source was the Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, which has been conducted every year since 1968. For the purpose of this post, I looked only at the opinion data between 2002 (the year NCLB was enacted) and 2015 (the year ESSA was enacted). My second source for public opinion data was the 2015 EdNext Poll on School Reform.

A few trends concerning testing and accountability policy emerged from the data. First, the public believes that there is now way too much emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools. Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of people believing that there is “too much” emphasis on standardized testing more than doubled from 31% to 64% while the percentage of people believing there is “about the right amount” of emphasis on standardized testing dropped from 47% to 19% (see chart below). In 2013—eleven years after NCLB’s enactment—only 22% of people believed that increased standardized testing under the law had improved the performance of public schools. 76% of people felt that it had either hurt school performance or made no difference. In 2015, when asked to rate the importance of various indicators of school effectiveness, standardized test scores came in last place—far behind things like “how engaged students are with their classwork,” “the percent of students who feel hopeful about their future,” and graduation rates. Similarly, in the EdNext poll, when asked “How good of a job do you think state standardized tests do at measuring what students learn in reading and math?” only 29% of respondents responded “good” or “very good.” However, the same survey also revealed that 67% of the public continues to be either “somewhat supportive” or “completely supportive” of federal requirements for at least one annual test in reading and math.

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ESSA and the Public’s Wishes

In general, the polls revealed a number of broad public preferences vis-à-vis accountability policy. While the public wants to see federal mandates for annual testing remain, it has grown wary of over-testing students and using standardized test data as the sole indicator of student, teacher, and school performance. In fact, the public seems to heavily discount the usefulness of test data, wishing instead that schools would be evaluated on a wider array of qualities (like graduation rates, student happiness, and school climate).

In these ways, the ESSA seems to be a step in the right direction. It codifies the public’s desire for continued annual testing in grades 3-8. However, it also encourages states to scale back their testing regimes and experiment with alternative forms of assessment. Furthermore, the law expects states to begin using other additional indicators of achievement (like graduation rates or school climate measures) in their accountability ratings. Even more importantly, it has abolished Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) and the NCLB sanctions that came with it, leaving accountability policy up to the states. States will no longer be required to punish schools on the sole basis of test score performance. Some states with long histories of test-based accountability may still carry on with this, but others will undoubtedly begin to scale back their accountability regimes. In all of these ways, the ESSA has the potential to bring testing policy back in line with the wishes of the American public. There is reason to hope that a more sensible accountability regime might emerge from the changes.

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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.