The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015. This bipartisan measure reauthorizes the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students. “With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal—that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make of their lives what they will.”-President Barack Obama.
This law focuses on fully preparing all students for success in college and careers. Perhaps the most significant change is that ESSA significantly reduces the authority of the federal Secretary of Education. Instead, states and local jurisdictions have substantial control over the implementation of academic standards, the design and enforcement of accountability systems, and how to allocate federal dollars.
How The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Differs from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)
The previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, was enacted in 2002. NCLB represented a significant step forward for American children in many respects, particularly as it shined a light on where students were making progress and where they needed additional support, regardless of race, income, zip code, disability, home language, or background. The law was scheduled for revision in 2007, and, over time, NCLB’s prescriptive requirements became increasingly unworkable for schools and educators. Some examples of the unrealistic and unworkable aspects of NCLB include:
–Student Performance Targets and School Ratings: This mechanism is unrealistic, and set by the federal government based on tests alone. Under ESSA, Student Performance Targets will be driven and based on multiple measures, not just test scores.
–Accountability, Interventions and Supports for Struggling Schools: This one size fits all federal identification and interventions does not work. For example, each child is unique. In particular, each child with special needs will never fit in a one-size fits all method. They need a program that is narrowly tailored to meet their unique need. Under ESSA, there will be state developed identification and intervention with support for bottom 5% of schools, schools where subgroups are falling behind, and high schools with high dropout rates. There will be dedicated funding for the lowest-performing schools.
ESSA Provisions Help to Ensure Success for Students and Schools
ESSA includes provisions that will help to ensure success for students and schools. Below are just a few. The law:
- Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.
- Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
- Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.
- Helps to support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators—consistent with our Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods
- Sustains and expands this administration’s historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
- Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time.
What ESSA Means for Students with Disabilities
In general, NCLB is replaced by ESSA, a law that forces more state-led accountability. For example, states must still separate and report the performance of students with disabilities on state tests, and those tests must still be given in grades 3-8 and once in high school.
Most students with disabilities will be taking the general assessment: The bill places a 1 percent cap of the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments. One percent of all students equates to about 10 percent of students with disabilities. These alternate assessments are intended for students with severe cognitive disabilities. The new law also says states cannot create their own alternate or modified assessments for students with disabilities. And, taking the alternate assessment should not preclude a student from attempting to get a regular high school diploma.
ESSA, School Psychologists, and the IDEA
ESSA contains two definitions that specifically mention school psychologists:
‘School-based mental health services provider’: “includes a State-licensed or State-certified school counselor, school psychologist, school social worker, or other State licensed or certified mental health professional qualified under State law to provide mental health services to children and adolescents”;
‘Specialized instructional support personnel’: means (i) school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists; and (ii) other qualified professional personnel…involved in providing assessment, diagnosis, counseling, educational, therapeutic, and other necessary services (including related services as that term is defined in section 602 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1401)) as part of a comprehensive program.”
Specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) is a new term that replaces ‘pupil services personnel’, and is intended to reflect the similarities between pupil services (as defined in ESEA) and ‘related services’ as defined by IDEA, and the professionals that provide these services to children in general and special education. ESSA explicitly references specialized instructional support personnel and provides more than 40 times in policies regarding state and district school improvement plans; identifying and supporting students most at risk of school failure; improving student literacy; addressing school climate and school safety; supporting the mental and behavioral health of students, among others.
This is important because students with Emotional Behavioral disturbances are often misunderstood and disproportionately disciplined through excessive suspensions or even expulsion. As a result, the child is more at risk for falling behind in her coursework, and more likely to be sitting in juvenile hall than in class. This is simply unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs.
Plans to Reduce Bullying, Restraint, Suspensions, Expulsions
The law requires states to develop plans on how they plan to reduce bullying and harassment, restraint and seclusion, and suspensions and expulsions—all of which disproportionately affect students with disabilities.
Specifically, ESSA requires that states include date about school climate, bullying and harassment in their annual state report card. Furthermore, states must articulate how they will assist local educational agency’s efforts to bullying, harassment and discipline. School psychologists should routinely examine the available data from in their schools, states, and districts to monitor the progress of efforts to improve school climate/safety and reduce bullying and harassment and ensure that all students attend a safe and supportive learning environment.
Assessment and Accountability for All Students
ESSA replaces the Annual Yearly Performance (AYP) and 100% proficiency requirements with a comprehensive model focused on supporting struggling schools. In consultation with various stakeholders, which must include specialized instructional support personnel, states must establish an accountability system to measure progress toward “ambitious long term goals.” As part of this plan, States must annually measure student progress toward goals based on:
-proficiency on state assessments, and
-at least one other valid and reliable academic indicator that can include student growth;
-high school graduation rates (high schools only)
-at least one indicator of school qualify or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation, such as student or educator engagement, or school climate safety.
To help schools improve conditions for learning, ESSA authorizes various funding streams that states and districts can use to implement:
-positive behavior interventions and supports or other activities to address skills such as social emotional learning, conflict resolution, effective problem solving, and appropriate relationship building;
-trauma informed practices, and mental health first aid;
-comprehensive school mental health services;
-efforts to improve school climate, school safety, and crisis prevention, intervention, and
-improve school community partnerships.
States will begin operating under new accountability systems as defined by ESSA and approved by the U.S. Department of Education beginning in the 2017-2018 school year.
 Christina Samuels, What Does ESSA Mean for Special Education?, Education Week’s Blogs, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/2015/12/essa_special_education.html (last visited July 5, 2016).
 National Association of School Psychologists, The Every Student Succeeds Act: Details of the New Law, https://www.nasponline.org/research-and-policy/current-law-and-policy-priorities/policy-priorities/the-every-student-succeeds-act/details-of-essa (last visited July 5, 2016).