Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): How the Nation’s New Education Law Supports EdTech

December 11, 2015


This article was written by Dennis Pierce, the former editor-in-chief of eSchool News, and current freelance writer covering education and technology. He has been following the ed-tech space for more than 17 years. To contact him, email: denniswpierce@gmail.com. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces No Child Left Behind as the nation’s new education law, has important implications for educational technology. Congress passed the legislation with bipartisan support, and President Obama signed it into law on Dec. 10. Here are some of the key takeaways from the law.

1. There’s plenty of money available for technology.

The most obvious example is Title IV, Part A, of the new law, which calls for $1.6 billion per year in Student Support and Academic Enhancement Grants—and technology is one of three priorities these grants must focus on.

Title IV, Part A, includes three subparts: Well-Rounded Educational Opportunities, Safe and Healthy Students, and Effective Use of Technology. Districts that receive more than $30,000 would have to spend at least 20 percent of their funding on activities that help students become well-rounded, and at least 20 percent on activities that help students be safe and healthy. The rest could be spent on technology, though no more than 15 percent could be spent on technology infrastructure.

But there are other sources of money for technology programs as well. For instance, Title I will play a key role in supporting school improvement efforts, said Verlan Stephens, managing partner at Agile Education Marketing. The School Improvement Grant program has been folded into Title I, and states can now set aside 7 percent of their Title I dollars for school turnarounds, up from 4 percent. Technology could play an important part in these turnaround projects.

2. The law could lead to new forms of state assessment.

ESSA contains provisions that could open the door to new forms of state assessment, such as computer-adaptive testing and even performance assessments.

In a pilot program designed to encourage experimentation, up to seven states can apply to try out new testing systems, similar to what New Hampshire is doing with competency-based assessments designed around performance tasks. Also, high schools can seek their state’s permission to use a nationally recognized test like the SAT or ACT as their high school test instead of the state assessment.

In addition, ESSA expressly allows for the use of computer-adaptive testing in state and local assessment systems. A provision within NCLB required all students to take the same tests, which the Education Department has interpreted as prohibiting tests that range significantly above or below a student’s grade level.

Allowing the full power of computer-adaptive testing could help states and schools more accurately determine “just how far above (or below) grade level some students may be,” wrote Brandon Wright, editorial director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

3. States and school districts will have more flexibility to close achievement gaps.

ESSA keeps the NCLB–mandated annual assessments in reading and math in place for students in grades 3 through 8. School districts also would have to test students at least once in high school. But the act limits the federal government’s role in education by giving states and districts more authority in deciding how to use these test scores to evaluate teachers and turn around low-performing schools.

States and school districts still have to break out the test data for different subgroups of students, such as minority and low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. But they’ll have more latitude to devise their own plans for closing the achievement gaps among these subgroups. States must submit their accountability plans to the Education Department for approval beginning with the 2017-18 school year.

Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association, said she believes ESSA marks “a significant improvement” over NCLB.

“It strikes a more appropriate balance between the role of the federal government and that of the state and local governments,” she said in an interview. “While this bill is not perfect, no bill would be perfect. It’s much more empowering of both state and local leaders, and much more proper in how it acknowledges that the education experts are at the state and local level—not inside the Beltway.”

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