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How Does the Every Student Succeeds Act Deal With Standards?

We know that the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed with big bipartisan support, doesn't force states to stick with or adopt the Common Core State Standards. So what does it actually ask for when it comes to this particular issue?

The short answer is that the standards language in ESSA—the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—strikes a delicate compromise that's kind of complicated to wrap your mind around.

So what did the Democrats get? ESSA calls for states to adopt "challenging academic standards" (that's the same language that the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, used).

But ESSA goes a little further, saying that these standards must be aligned with what students need to know to take credit-bearing courses in college, or with state career and technical education standards. In fact, this is one of the Obama administration's favorite talking points about the law—they're really excited that, in their view, it sticks with the whole idea of college- and career- readiness.

When ESSA was being negotiated, however, some Democrats had actually wanted to go even further, requiring state higher education institutions to sign off on standards, just like they have to under NCLB waivers, advocates said. But that didn't fly with the GOP team.

What did the Republicans get? The secretary is specifically prohibited from "coercing" states to adopt a particular set of standards, including Common Core. In fact, that's in ESSA more than once.

And the law includes a line saying that nothing in the legislative text gives post-secondary institutions the authority to determine specific state standards. (Which I would assume means that colleges can't write the standards themselves, or point to some existing set of standards, and then force the rest of the state to go along with whatever they pick.) 

Here's where it seems to get complicated: ESSA allows the department to provide more clarification on standards in regulation. And they could ask post-secondary institutions to take a look at the standards their states are pitching and make sure that they will get students ready for the academic or working world beyond high school. That would essentially require in regs what negotiators reportedly couldn't get into actual legislation. It's not an out-of-the-blue ask, it's what states essentially have needed to do for the past few years. Still, it could prove controversial.

So where will the department decide to come down?

Some folks want the department to provide some specificity to make sure states know what to do and that standards will truly prepare kids for the future. For instance, Scott Sargrad, the director of standards and accountability for the Center for American Progress, urged the department to provide more guidance on standards during a public meeting on ESSA last week.

But, given the sensitivity around standards, others are hoping the department will just leave well enough alone. Mike Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a common-core supporter who has been critical of the administration's role in promoting the standards, is crossing his fingers that the administration will use a light touch here.

"I really think the Department should simply restate the legislative language on this. Change not a single word! Please for the love of God!" he wrote in an email.

We should find out more in coming months. Standards are one part of the law that will be subject to "negotiated rule making." That means a bunch of interested parties show up at the department and try to hash out an agreement in person.

And in the end, it may not matter much one way or the other, if most states to decide to stick with the standards they have now, whether that's common core—or something else.

This only has the potential to become a sticking point if lots of states decide to change their expectations dramatically. 

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