On Dec. 10, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Child Succeeds Act (ECSA), which overhauls the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law was passed by wide margins on a bipartisan basis by both the House and the Senate.

Unlike NCLB, ECSA does not contain federal achievement goals and does not provide federal sanctions for failure to achieve those goals. Instead, the power and authority of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is reduced in significant respects. ECSA leaves much in the hands of the States.

In order to qualify for Title I funding, a State must submit an accountability plan, with goals and an assessment system, to the DOE and the plan must be approved. But even there, ECSA significantly limits what the DOE can and cannot do.

Whether States will rise to the challenge of improving academic outcomes for minority and low-income children, without federal incentives and coercion, remains to be seen.

Challenging Standards

Under ECSA, each State must have challenging academic standards for mathematics, reading or language arts, and science, and may have such standards for any other subject determined by the State. The standards must be “aligned with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State and relevant State career and technical education standards.”

States are also required to adopt English-language proficiency standards that are aligned with the State’s academic standards; and they are permitted to adopt alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities with certain provisos.  

The Doe may not require a State to submit any standards to the DOE for review or approval. And, the DOE is prohibited from requiring a State to adopt any specific standards.


 Each State is required to adopt a standardized test aligned with its academic standards in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science.

Mathematics and reading or language arts tests must be administered annually in each of grades 3 through 8, and at least once in high school. Science assessments must be administered at least one time during grades 3 through 5, 6 through 9, and 10 through 12. In high school, the SAT or ACT may be used.

As under NCLB, test results must be disaggregated by each major racial and ethnic group, economically disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, English proficiency status, gender, and migrant status.

An Accountability System

Each State is required to develop and implement a statewide accountability system based on its academic standards. The system must establish ambitious long-term goals, including measurements of interim progress toward meeting such goals, for all students and separately for each subgroup of students. 

For subgroups of students who are behind academically, the goals must take into account the progress necessary to close proficiency and graduation-rate gaps.

 Long-term goals must also be set to increase the percentage of English language learners making progress toward achieving English language proficiency.

Each State is required to assess how each school is doing in educating its students as a whole, and each subgroup of students using the following indicators: 1) student’s proficiency on the state’s tests (all schools) ; 2) student growth or another academic indicator that allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance (elementary and middle schools); 3) graduation rates (high schools); 4) progress in achieving English language proficiency (all schools); and 5) at least one measure related to student success, such as student engagement or school climate (all schools). 

The State is required to annually measure the achievement of not less than 95% of all students and 95% of all students in each subgroup. This requirement must be factored into the indicators.

States must establish a system to rate all public schools using these indicators, but it has significant leeway in deciding how much weight to give to each of these indicators.   

Each state must also establish a methodology to identify, at a minimum, three categories of underperforming schools: 1) the lowest-performing five percent of schools; 2) public high schools where more than one-third of the students do not graduate; and 3) schools where any subgroup is consistently underperforming.

An underperforming school or the school district in which an underperforming school is located must implement evidence-based interventions at the school, with technical assistance from the State. A State is required to monitor the interventions; and if they are not successful after a period of time, the State is required to step in with a more rigorous plan. No specific action, however, is mandated; and the DOE is prohibited from requiring that specific steps be taken.  

ECSA provides for federal grants to help improve low-performing schools.

Submission of a Plan

Starting in 2017-18, States that desire to receive Title I funds are required to submit a plan describing their accountability system, including their goals and assessments, to the DOE for approval.

In addition to describing the accountability system, the plan must describe how the State will provide assistance to school districts and schools supporting early childhood education programs; how low-income and minority children are not served at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers;  how the State will support school districts to improve school conditions for learning, including through reducing incidences of bullying and harassment, and the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom; as well as other factors.

Each State plan must contain assurances that the State will make public any criteria for measuring teacher, principal, or other school leader effectiveness. ECSA does not require that teachers be evaluated using student growth.

The DOE must approve a plan within 90 days, unless it can present, after a peer review, substantial evidence that clearly demonstrates that the plan does not meet requirements. A State is entitled to a hearing if DOE turns down its plan. 

The DOE is prohibited from prescribing, as a condition of approval of a State’s plan or of a waiver request, long-term goals or measurements, specific academic assessments, indicators of school success, the weight of any measure or indicator,  specific support and improvement strategies, the way the 95% participation rate is factored into the accountability system, and other things.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...