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How Are States Dealing with New ESSA Requirements?

Michael Nutter

November 22, 2017

All of the ESSA plans are in, and different states have taken substantially different approaches to compliance.

One of the major criticisms of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was that it overemphasized standardized testing in public schools. In response, the bipartisan 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created the opportunity for each state to develop its own accountability standards centered around critical performance indicators in five areas: proficiency in reading and math, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency, student growth throughout elementary and middle school, and one additional indicator of school quality or success.

As of October 17, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had submitted plans detailing their approach to ESSA compliance. The state plans will now go through an extensive peer review process during which a whole host of educational policy experts will weigh in to ensure that every proposed plan is fully ESSA-compliant.

In the interim, here are some of the more noteworthy — and in some cases, controversial — elements that states have included in their official proposals.


Oklahoma has approached ESSA compliance as an opportunity to set a number of ambitious goals for its public school system. By 2025, Oklahoma hopes to score among the top 20 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in all subjects in both fourth and eighth grade. Furthermore, the state is aiming to cut the need for college remediation in math and English in half, ensure that all secondary students develop an Individualized Career Academic Plan, and prepare 75% of preschool students to enter kindergarten ready to read.

To reach these lofty goals, Oklahoma has developed a new method for academic goal setting based on a hierarchy of student subgroups. Under this new system, a student’s academic performance will only be counted once, regardless of the number of officially-tracked subgroups to which they belong. Using this method, an “economically disadvantaged” English language learner (ELL) would only be counted as part of the former subgroup, and their ELL status will have no bearing upon how the state considers their academic progress.

Advocates of this approach argue that it will enable the state to pinpoint student subgroups in need of supplementary resources, but opponents claim it will result in a “flattening” or oversimplification of the complex situations in which many individual students find themselves.


Colorado has made the curious choice of maintaining two separate school assessment systems, largely due to its position as an epicenter of the “opt-out” movement. In the wake of No Child Left Behind, many parents in states like Colorado and New York began excusing their children from what they viewed as excessive standardized testing. In an attempt to insulate its public schools against this trend, the Colorado Board of Education adopted a policy that prevented the state from lowering a school’s quality rating even if the school failed to reach the 95% standardized test participation threshold.

The federal Department of Education determined that this policy was too lenient on schools with high opt-out rates, and sent Colorado’s original ESSA plan back to the state for revision. Instead of bowing to pressure from Washington, Colorado decided to continue protecting schools with high numbers of students who chose to opt out of state evaluations, creating an entirely separate list of schools that fail to meet federal benchmarks for standardized test participation.


After delaying submission by several months to incorporate feedback from a range of stakeholders, Ohio finalized its ESSA plan in mid-September. According to Senior Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Education Chris Woolard, the plan places “a lot more emphasis on the needs of disadvantaged students: homeless students, foster students, and migrant students. It’s also more focused on meeting the needs of the whole child, on top of just academic concerns.”

This focus on the “whole child” is borne out in Ohio’s decision to focus on chronic absenteeism as its “fifth indicator,” as this metric helps educators identify when and where critical barriers to achievement exist, especially among disadvantaged populations. On the other hand, Ohio’s plan dictates that students must sit for 22 standardized tests from elementary school through high school, five more than federal law requires.

Choosing the Right Data Partner

Regardless of the approach their state takes to ESSA compliance, public schools across the nation must take substantial steps to ensure that their data tracking processes are as strong and reliable as possible. Reducing the emphasis on standardized tests will benefit students in the long run, but it also shifts the burden of performance monitoring from government testing authorities to school districts themselves.

In order to adapt to this structural reorganization, districts should consider partnering with an educational data expert like Vinson Consulting Group. At Vinson, we understand that every district is different, and we have the broad-based experience necessary to craft right-fit data reporting solutions to suit any set of circumstances.

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