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ESSA & NCLB – Some Comparisons

By Donald Kim, CEI Intern

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) bill into law.  ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was passed in 2001. ESSA had bi-partisan support in congress like its predecessor.  The new law is now the most current reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which has been reauthorized every five years since its introduction. No Child Left Behind was replaced because of its inability to improve education standards and quality.  Although test scores improved, the improvements were marginal, and the ethnic score gap did not improve.

In signing ESSA, Obama shared that he wishes to ensure students graduate prepared for either college or a career, uphold high standards for anyone regardless of background, and to fix the one-size-fits-all approach of NCLB. According to the White House Report on ESSA, ESSA:

  1. Ensures that states set high standards so that children graduate high school ready for college and career.

  2. Maintains accountability by guaranteeing that when students fall behind, states target resources towards what works to help them and their schools improve, with a particular focus on the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools with high dropout rates, and schools where subgroups of students are struggling.

  3. Empowers state and local decision-makers to develop their own strong systems for school improvement based upon evidence, rather than imposing cookie-cutter federal solutions like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did.

  4. Preserves annual assessments and reduce the often onerous burden of unnecessary and ineffective testing on students and teachers, making sure that standardized tests don’t crowd out teaching and learning, without sacrificing clear, annual information parents and educators need to make sure our children are learning.

  5. Provides more children access to high-quality preschool, giving them the chance to get a strong start to their education.

  6. Establishes new resources to test promising practices and replicate proven strategies that will drive opportunity and better outcomes for America’s students.

So what are the actual differences between ESSA and NCLB?  High standards, accountability, and empowerment all seem to echo the aims of No Child Left Behind.  After all, Obama has even said, ‘The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right goals..’  The main difference between ESSA and NCLB is the way standards are set and tracked.  States are still required to test 3rd-8th grade students and once again in high school, but are now granted more flexibility in how and when the tests are given.  This is a subtle but important change.  NCLB was criticized harshly for testing how much students know, instead of how much students are learning.  Under NCLB, school systems could fulfill the law’s requirements by teaching students to do well on the required examination.  But this didn’t mean that overall instruction and education quality were improving.

Another noteworthy change is the inclusion of pre-school in the implementation of ESSA.  The law will also help invest in local innovations developed by leaders and educators.  For example, the Department of Education may provide funding support to local educational agencies and nonprofit organizations working with schools.  Additionally, the law encourages districts to shift more funding to schools that are in need or struggling.

For a more in-depth look at differences between NCLB and ESSA, take a look at the chart below.  In a nutshell, ESSA is a more flexible variation of NCLB, that allows for more freedom in keeping school accountable. The quality of implementation will rest with states and local entities.



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