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ESSA, Historical Antecedents & the Future of Education

Updated: May 27, 2021

By Rachel Kelly, CEI Intern


Historical Antecedent. Before ESSA, American students faced over a decade with the NCLB. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into action. Because American test scores had been falling behind the scores of other countries, the purpose of this Act was to make schools more accountable for their students’ performance. However, as time went on, the law was not updated and it started to have a negative impact. According to Alyson Klein from Education Week, ‘The NCLB law criticized for growing the federal footprint in K-12 education, and for relying too heavily on standardized tests. And others say its emphasis on math and reading tests has narrowed the curriculum, forcing schools to spend less time on subjects that aren’t explicitly tested, like social studies, foreign language, and the arts.’


Obama Enacts ESSA Regulations. To help update NCLB and fix some of its flaws, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law ESSA. With ESSA, states have more flexibility when it comes to testing. States still are still required to test students, but the standards and expectations are chosen by the individual states and not by the federal government. It depends on the state, but the procedures for standardized tests could possibly become less strict, which will allow schools and teachers to focus more on other subjects and creative activities rather than teaching to the test. It is too early to tell what will happen. And of course, with a new administration, there will likely be new provisions and challenges.

Other Provisions. According to the Department of Education, some other provisions from the ESSA Regulations are as follows:

  1. ‘Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.

  2. Requires’”for the first time’”that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.

  3. Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.

  4. Helps to support and grow local innovations’”including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators’”consistent with our Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods

  5. Sustains and expands in increasing access to high-quality preschool.

  6. Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time.’

Other than giving schools more flexibility, the idea behind these provisions and the law is to give every child an equal education, no matter where they live or what school they attend, so that they can be prepared for college and the future. The ESSA Regulations are supposed to go into full effect during the 2017 or 2018 school year.


Klein, Alyson (2016). The Every Student Succeeds Act: An ESSA Overview. Education Week.

Klein, Alyson (2016). No Child Left Behind: An Overview. Education Week. U.S. Department Of Education. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).


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