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Key Elements of the Every Student Succeeds Act

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Back to Federal P-12 Policy & Funding

The Every Student Succeeds Act is the main federal K-12 law for education. It is the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, and received bipartisan support in Congress.

Want an easy way to have ESSA explained? This Education Week video provides highlights of the law.

Here’s some more history behind ESSA and what it does.

ESSA grew out of long-standing dissatisfaction with its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as criticism of Obama’s education policies from both Democrats and Republicans. Essentially, lawmakers in both parties agreed for different reasons that the Obama administration had been too heavy-handed and prescriptive when dealing with states and schools.

ESSA was written to give states and school districts more control over decisions like how teachers are evaluated and what improvement strategies schools should use to address low-performing schools, while reducing the power of the federal government over those types of decisions. The focuses considerable attention on how states should identify and address struggling schools and groups of students.

Like the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA requires schools to give annual standardized exams in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools must also test students in science once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9, and once in grades 10-12.

Below is a brief overview of some key sections of ESSA.


Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA says states must include in their data reporting and accountability systems information and outcomes for students disaggregated by race, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, and English-language learners. ESSA says states must also report performance data for homeless students, students with a parent in the military, and students in foster care.


States must have accountability plans approved by the U.S. secretary of education. The systems by which states hold schools accountable and provide school ratings differ somewhat between high schools and middle and elementary schools. High schools, for example, must be judged in part on their graduation rates. But in general, schools must be judged by proficiency on state tests, the performance of English-language learners, and another academic factor like growth on state tests.

States must also include a factor like school climate or how engaged students are in school that is not linked to strictly academic performance.

The academic factors must count for “much more” than the non-academic factors in the system, the law says, but there’s no mandated ratio for this.


States set their own long-term academic goals, but they must cover proficiency, English-learners, and graduation rates in some way. Crucially, there is no federal penalty or other prescription if states do not meet these goals.

Teacher Evaluation

Under ESSA, the federal government is prohibited from having any role in determining how states evaluate teachers.

Identifying Low Performing Schools

At least once every three years, states must identify the bottom-performing 5 percent of schools that receive Title I aid (as judged by standardized test results). They must also identify high schools where two-thirds or less of students graduate, or schools where one or more subgroups of students, like English-learners or a particular racial group, are struggling.

By “struggling,” the law means that a subgroup of students is performing at least as poorly as the students in the lowest-performing bottom 5 percent of Title I schools.

How to account for and help these student subgroups is one of the trickiest and most contested parts of the law. It’s an area where states and districts have key flexibility, but some say not all states are incorporating the performance of vulnerable students into their plans like they should.

School Improvement

The law identifies two main categories for schools needing improvement. The bottom 5 percent of Title I schools and high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or lower are tagged as requiring “comprehensive support and improvement.” Schools in which subgroups of students are struggling need “targeted support and improvement.”

For the comprehensive support and improvement schools: A district comes up with an “evidence-based” improvement plan, and states monitor the school’s progress. After four years, if things haven’t improved sufficiently, the state can intervene and fire the principal, take over the school, or choose other strategies.

For the targeted support and improvement schools: A school comes up with an improvement plan to help the group or group of students that are struggling. If progress isn’t sufficient, the district can intervene, though there’s no timeline for that to happen.

Some states offer a lot of flexibility in terms of which improvement strategies get used, while others do not.

The federal government cannot dictate school improvement plans. However, states must set aside 7 percent of Title I aid for work on school improvement.

Academic Standards

States are required to adopt “challenging” academic standards. However, the education secretary is prohibited from coercing or encouraging states into adopting any particular set of standards.

This part of the law is a legacy of the backlash to the Common Core State Standards. (The Obama administration created financial incentives for states to adopt those standards for English language arts and mathematics.)

School Spending

ESSA requires districts for the first time to publish per-student spending levels down to the school level as part of a publicly available report. This may sound simple, but the shift required a lot of work by local officials and states received extensions to the deadline to meet this requirement.

The goal of this requirement is to provide officials and the public with more information about local spending, and specifically funding disparities that might exist between schools within one district.