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Opportunities Under ESSA

What a Continuously Improving System Looks Like

What a Continuously Improving System Looks Like

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford scholar, and David Plank of Policy Analysis for California Education have created a conceptual model to depict the key features of a continuously improving system based on changes in California that have emerged following the introduction of a new school finance system and continuous improvement accountability during the past few years.

Key features include:

  • Learning supports (materials and professional development) for the continuous improvement of curriculum, teaching, assessment and student support strategies;
  • Information systems for keeping track of what schools and districts are doing and to what effect;
  • Ongoing review of school and district efforts and outcomes, including self-assessment and review by experts and peers;
  • Thoughtful innovation and evaluation, so teachers, schools, and school districts experiment with promising policies and practices in ways that are a) informed by existing knowledge about those practices, b) designed to support serious evaluation of their implementation challenges and effects, and c) intended to support broader adoption of successful approaches and abandonment of unsuccessful ones;
  • Knowledge dissemination strategies (through a central repository of research and exemplars, convenings, networks, and leveraged supports) so that successful practices become widely known and supported in their wider adoption/adaptation.

Elements of a Continuously Improving System


Source: Darling-Hammond and Plank, Supporting Continuous Improvement in California’s Education System[8]

ESSA Provides Opportunities to Introduce Continuous Improvement Accountability

The new federal law gives states increased flexibility, greater local control, and the ability to innovate and design local policies and systems that ensure the success of all students. This flexibility gives SEAs room to set their own goals and introduce CI accountability. However, SEAs will need to be decisive about doing so, because the law provides only the most basic framework for what states need to do.

In state accountability plans that must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for review, SEAs also can expand on the list of required school performance indicators, focusing not just on academic indicators but also incorporating a broad range of other measures that provide actionable information that schools can use to improve all dimensions of quality and assess their progress over time. There are general guidelines but no hard and fast rules about how SEAs are to work with school district to determine what will happen with chronically low-performing schools.

"We need to push forward to capitalize on the opportunity for a redesigned  accountability system, not just an update of our old system, which has been our goal."


Dr. Karen Woodward, Superindent, Lexington School District One, South Carolina 

The following is a brief analysis of some key provisions of the law:


Under Title I, ESSA continues the NCLB requirement that states have in place academic content and achievement standards in reading or language arts, mathematics, and science. These must be the same standards for all public school students in the state and, unlike under NCLB, must align with the entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the state’s system of public higher education, as well as with applicable state career and technical education standards. As under NCLB, the achievement standards must define at least three levels of achievement.

States also must have in place English Language Proficiency (ELP) Standards (derived from the domains of speaking, listening, reading and writing) for English Learners (ELs) that are aligned with their academic standards. This is largely a restatement of similar language that was in Title III of the previous law, though the ELP Standards now must address the different English proficiency levels of ELs, as opposed to the single definition of proficiency permitted under NCLB. It is important to note that under ESSA all the standards, assessments, and accountability for ELs is housed under Title I, not Title III. This change is a significant shift from previous law.


While testing provisions still include annual testing and disaggregating data in reading and language arts in grades 3-8, and one-time testing in reading and language arts in high school, the law also allows states to use federal resources to improve tests and experiment with performance-based assessments, as well as limit the number of tests and amount of time for testing. Also, states can elect to administer a series of tests throughout the year that aggregate to an annual test rather than an end-of-year summative test. States must provide for an annual assessment of English proficiency, aligned with their ELP Standards, for all ELs.

Accountability Systems

In place of NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” provisions, each state must implement a state-designed accountability system that includes long-term goals and annual indicators based on those goals for all students, including student subgroups. The annual indicators must specifically include indicators of students’ academic proficiency in reading/language arts and math, as measured through state assessments, rates of high school graduation, one or more academic indicators applicable to elementary and middle schools, ELs’ progress in attaining proficiency in English, and at least one school quality or student success indicator.

The two major changes from NCLB are the required inclusion of an English proficiency indicator and the requirement to include at least one school quality or student success indicator. These could include measures of school safety, student engagement, or educator engagement, as well as access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, and other factors that can be measured statewide. There is actually no limit on how many indicators states might include.

Low-Performing Schools

SEAs will annually differentiate the progress of their schools using an accountability index or other mechanism that gives “substantial weight” to all indicators but “much greater weight,” in the aggregate, to the achievement indicator, the high school graduation rate, the elementary and middle school other academic indicator, and the EL proficiency indicator.

SEAs are required to identify the lowest-performing five percent of schools in the state that receive Title I funding, all public high schools that fail to graduate one-third or more of their students, and schools where any subgroup of students consistently underperforms. However, rather than punish schools that have significantly underperforming subgroups, states and districts will work with school leaders, teachers, and other key stakeholders to target support and improvement. District-approved improvement plans must be based on all indicators in the state plan, and strategies must be evidence-based. Once the plans are approved, their implementation must be monitored by the district. If schools do not meet state-defined criteria after four years of support, the state can take action, including intervening in school-level operations.

ESSA also requires each state to reserve seven percent of its Title I-A allocation to serve schools implementing these kinds of comprehensive and targeted support and improvement plans. Improvement plans are required to identify and address resource gaps and also require state monitoring of local spending.

Teacher and Leader Equity

ESSA contains several provisions designed to ensure equitable access to high-quality teachers and school leaders. Under ESSA, Title I State Plans must show that low-income and minority children in Title I schools are not served at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers, and define measures to be used to evaluate and publicly report progress. In addition, states are required to publicly report on this requirement. Furthermore, states are empowered to use Title II set-aside funds to improve equitable access to effective teachers. Additionally, pre-existing (NCLB) Teacher Equity Plans remain in effect for the next school year.

[8] Darling-Hammond, L. and Plank, D. (January 2015). Supporting continuous improvement in California’s education system. Policy brief, Policy Analysis for California Education and Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education,” p.3 https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/supporting-continuous-improvement-california%E2%80%99s-education-system_0.pdf   A longer version of this document can be found at:http://edpolicyinca.org/sites/default/files/PACE%20Scope%20CCEE%20January%202015.pdf


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