Case Study

Accountability measures included in the Every Student Succeeds Act

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, originally passed in 2001, was instrumental in revealing for the first time vast achievement gaps for K-12 students in the United States. By requiring states to administer annual tests to measure how students were progressing, and to take action to turn around schools that were failing students, NCLB’s era of accountability led to significant growth in math and reading scores following decades of stagnation, particularly for students of color, whose scores in reading improved by as much as 20 points.

But despite these successes, it became clear that NCLB had overstepped, both by requiring states to meet unrealistic proficiency benchmarks and by prescribing a narrow, one-size-fits-all set of intervention strategies for states to use to turn around low-performing schools. Those who opposed accountability used those weaknesses to turn the law’s reauthorization process into a referendum on annual testing and federal oversight, risking a return to the days in which low-income students, students of color, and others who had once been invisible could again fall through the cracks of state education systems.

So rather than throw the NCLB baby out with the bathwater, Third Way offered a different approach. We strongly advocated for maintaining the annual tests that reveal achievement gaps and student growth (or lack thereof) while giving states greater freedom to create their own multi-measure accountability systems as long as they strongly incorporated “academic indicators” like test scores and graduation rates. This framework would maintain critical federal guardrails for those students that states had long failed, while allowing for much-needed flexibility to experiment in tailoring the most effective strategies to turn around schools that are faltering.

In coordination with civil rights groups and other key education and business stakeholders, Third Way’s media blitz, press briefings, research, talking points, and policy support helped to convince policymakers in both the House and the Senate — particularly moderate Democrats — that assessment and accountability were crucial and could be achieved while simultaneously addressing many of the complaints about the original NCLB. As a result, many lawmakers who at first were highly skeptical of annual tests and federal accountability guardrails ultimately become the biggest defenders of these policies.

A bipartisan Congress worked to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Obama signed in December 2015, correcting many of the pitfalls of NCLB. Today, ESSA preserves the federal testing and reporting requirements that helped to narrow achievement gaps under NCLB. But it also lets the states set their own individual goals for improvement and allows schools to measure success beyond only “proficiency” in test scores by measuring student growth over time. Further, it gives state and local actors far more ability to determine what actions to take to turn around schools that fail to perform. This setup rightfully places the states at the helm of their K-12 systems while allowing the federal government to continue to push for equity and protect low-income students, students of color, and others who have historically not been well-served by states acting alone.