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At ESSA Anniversary Event, Policy Leaders, Advocates Reflect on Law's Impact

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Washington

Four years to the day after the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Law, policymakers and advocates at an anniversary event here described the law as a work in progress that's likely to continue in place, with one of the bill's co-authors indicating there's little enthusiasm in Congress for rewriting the nation's laws governing K-12 education.

"As a classroom teacher you don't have to worry about federal education policy changing every four years," said Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee, and one of ESSA's main architects. "I think this is likely to be the framework of federal education policy for some time to come."

The comments came Wednesday during a half-day Capitol Hill event co-sponsored by the Collaborative for Student Success and Education Week, marking the law's anniversary with discussions of its impact on assessments, equity and school improvement, education funding, and data. The event opened with a panel discussion featuring three of the law's key authors, including Alexander; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House education committee; and former Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

ESSA, the 2015 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aimed to roll back controversial provisions from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act and better empower states to determine how to track student performance and improve schools.

At Wednesday's event, Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, praised the law's focus on transparency, diversity, and equity, but pointed out that recent nationwide test results leave a lot to be desired.

"We don't believe this calls for some resetting of our education system," said Cowen, whose group focuses on issues such as accountability, standards, and assessments. "We should be doubling down on what we know works."

Here are some key takeaways from the event.

The transformation of testing hasn't yet arrived.

Lawmakers hoped ESSA would allow states to move beyond the burdensome flood of assessments they had been required to administer by No Child Left Behind. A provision in ESSA allows for states to develop "innovative testing" that differs from the formulaic end-of-year summative assessment that has become de rigeur in most U.S. schools. But those innovative tests, according to Alexander, have yet to emerge.

A revolution in assessment isn't always possible on short notice, said Amanda Aragon, the executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, a student advocacy organization. New Mexico consistently ranks near the bottom of school performance lists, with only 30 percent of the state's students reading on grade level, Aragon said.

"If we were sitting comfortable at number one, my tolerance for innovation would be a little wider," she said.

In some cases, though, making a significant change in test offerings can be a worthwhile investment, according to Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota's state superintendent. Her state's schools moved away from tests centered around the Common Core State Standards after it became clear that teachers were spending more time explaining standards to parents than they were successfully helping students learn. 

Baesler said she believes states will need more time to fully transform testing to the extent Alexander said he expects.

"Local superintendents are begining to understand what they can do and can't do. Building principals are begining to understand," she said. "The conversations are changing."

Alexander said he expects more innovative assessments, as well as experimentation more generally, to emerge in the coming years.

"I think what's happened in the country is schools have gotten so accustomed to playing 'Mother May I' with federal and state government that their bias is not to try something new because they're afraid they'll get slapped down," Alexander said. "Once they understand how much flexibility exists, I think states will try more innovative things."

The executive branch still has a role to play.  

The U.S. Department of Education under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has eliminated many of the Obama-era regulations that aimed to offer guidance to states, particularly on serving disadvantaged student populations. For instance, a recent National Urban League survey found 12 states that don't include individual student groups on school ratings reports, which advocates say could allow challenges students are facing to go unnoticed.

Advocates for students from marginalized groups called during the event for more involvement from the federal government to keep states in line.

"We've seen a department that at best has taken a hands-off approach and at worst has been negligent in ensuring that historically undeserved students are getting the supports they need to succeed," said Susie Feliz, vice president of policy and legislative affairs for the National Urban League Washington Bureau.

Scott, the House education committee head, said he was disappointed to see that the department approved a vast majority of states' education plans rather than applying more-strict criteria for determining their efficacy. "Some of them were not nearly as strong as they needed to be," he said.

During a brief appearance at the event, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of the bill's co-authors, said she "has very serious concerns" about what she sees as DeVos' lax enforcement of ESSA. "I know how fast the public can turn if we don't implement it correctly," she said.

A bipartisan bill of such magnitude might not be possible to pass today.

The hard-fought success of the bill's passage was a product of widespread frustration over the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial 2002 law that expanded federal requirements for testing in schools.

"It's not that everybody wanted [No Child Left Behind] fixed," said Kline, who headed the House education committee before retiring from Congress in 2017. "Everybody wanted the law gone."

Kline said then-House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2015 had urged him to come up with a K-12 bill that would be supported by "a majority of the majority"—meaning he wanted almost all Republicans on board in the GOP-controlled House, rather than allowing support from Democratic lawmakers to steer the bill to passage. Lawmakers in both parties wanted to avoid bearing responsibility for failing to compromise and pass a new law, Scott said.

Murray had pushed in 2015 for an ESSA provision to establish a new preschool education agency within the Education Department. Alexander said he told her that plan would alienate his Republican colleagues, so they arrived at a compromise: funding for preschool education, but no new bureaucratic office. 

Alexander said he believes the federal government's role in K-12 education is now comparable in magnitude to its role during his tenure as education secretary from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. 

"The expansion of the department was going to be unpopular on my side of the aisle. [Murray's preschool proposal] was one that almost brought [the bill] to its knees," Alexander said. "The pressure from the rest of the world on the necessity of getting rid of No Child Left Behind allowed us to go through that."

Image: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., second from left, an architect of the Every Student Succeeds Act, shares a panel with two other ESSA co-authors, former Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., center, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., at a conference in Washington co-sponsored by Education Week and the Collaborative for Student Success on the law's fourth anniversary. The panel was moderated by Education Week Assistant Editor Alyson Klein, far left. (Credit: Graeme Sloan for Education Week)

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