Special Edition

Opportunities Under ESSA

A New Approach to Accountability for a New Era

A New Approach to Accountability for a New Era

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) attempts to address some of the flaws of NCLB. While the law still holds states accountable for focusing resources on low-performing schools and subgroups of traditionally underserved students who consistently demonstrate low academic performance, it focuses more on improvement than punishment.

It empowers policymakers to take a critical look at all aspects of the school that influence learning by requiring public reporting on outcomes and opportunities to learn for all students, including per-pupil expenditures, access to rigorous coursework, and measures of school climate. More importantly, the law cedes power back to the states to determine what accountability should look like, requiring each state to establish a statewide accountability system and related school support and improvement activities by the 2017-18 school year (click here for an analysis of some key provisions of ESSA).

By limiting the federal role in defining accountability systems, ESSA opens the door for states to develop an accountability framework with continuous improvement at its core and the local context as its foundation. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to move beyond the NCLB-era approach to accountability that, in too many cases, created a compliance culture of blame and an inequitable system of winners and losers.

To create an accountability system that actually sparks student and school improvement, states need to move beyond limited or arbitrary measures of student learning to rate schools and impose punitive measures—measures that rarely helped schools improve during the NCLB era. To ensure that accountability doesn’t impede improvement, each state needs to find the right mix of measures that come together to tell a holistic story about how schools and their students are performing—and those measures must provide enough meaningful information to help states plan and implement appropriate and targeted supports.

In the words of Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University, “If the goal of an accountability system is to improve education, it must raise expectations not only for individual schools but for the functioning of the system as a whole—and trigger the intelligent investments and change strategies that make it possible to achieve these expectations…”[4]

An accountability system must be much more than setting expectations.  It must establish the processes and conditions to reach such expectations. Put another way, if as a nation we are serious about achieving success for every learner, we must create systems that are responsive to the personal journey every learner experiences. We need accountability systems that do not forestall improvements in school quality, teacher effectiveness, and student learning but rather guide, support, and ensure continuous improvement.

These changes are in sync with the views of the public, state leaders, and educators. People want their schools—students and school personnel—to be assessed fairly and comprehensively, and for such assessments to include a broad measure of indicators. With public concerns about the amount of time students spend taking achievement tests, the quality of those tests, and the ways in which they are used to evaluate teachers, administrators, and schools, Americans have become increasingly worried that their public schools focus too narrowly on tested subjects and grades; spend too much time on testing and test preparation; and spend too little time teaching interesting, relevant content and higher order skills.

Moreover, while Americans generally support the idea that schools, students, teachers, and administrators should be assessed regularly and held accountable for their performance, they worry that existing accountability systems assess performance in ways that are often limited, inaccurate, and unfair. ESSA offers an opportunity to address these concerns and improve accountability at all levels, but the road ahead is not unambiguous.


[4] Darling-Hammond, L., Wilhoit, G., & Pittenger, L. (2014). Accountability for college and career readiness: Developing a new paradigm. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, pp. 2-3. https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/publications/pubs/1257