On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that now replaces the widely criticized No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. NDSS is optimistic that this new bipartisan education law will increase accountability to students with disabilities and maintain high standards for all students.

Much appreciation is due to the many advocates who worked toward passage of the best possible bill. Going forward, more advocacy will be needed to ensure that local school districts and states, which will now have more flexibility, are held accountable for providing robust educational opportunities for students with disabilities.

ESSA and Students with Disabilities

NDSS believes that ESSA is an improvement over ESEA’s successor No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The following are noteworthy provisions of the new law in relation to students with disabilities:

  • Subgroup accountability in testing: States will still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. They will be required to break out data for whole schools and also for “subgroups” (e.g. students with disabilities), and to identify schools where subgroups are struggling. States will no longer be able to lump subgroups together into “supersubgroups” (e.g. students with disabilities, minority students, etc.). This will result in more accountability toward students with disabilities.
  • State discretion increased: States and local districts will be able to set their own goals, standards, accountability measures and interventions. Their accountability systems will be required to include a mix of academic indicators and an “additional indicator” (e.g. student engagement or post-secondary readiness). The role of the US Department of Education will be diminished. The shift in power to the states will provide more flexibility in setting up accountability systems and interventions, but will also necessitate more scrutiny by advocates to ensure that students with disabilities are given the best possible opportunities to succeed.
  • Academic standards: States must adopt “challenging” academic standards (guidelines are given in the bill), but the US Department of Education is prohibited from forcing or encouraging states towards a particular set of standards or assessments (e.g. Common Core will become optional).
  • Participation rate in testing: Only 1% of students overall may be given alternative assessments (which is about 10% of students in special education). States will be allowed to create their own testing opt-out laws, but the federal requirement for 95% participation in tests will remain. This means that only students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will take the alternate assessments. There is language in ESSA to make sure that parents are fully informed about the testing options and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) development process.
  • Eligibility for full diploma: The new ESSA explicitly states that students who take an alternate assessment may not be precluded from attempting to complete the requirements for a full high school diploma.
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL): UDL is referenced numerous times throughout the ESSA bill, and states are encouraged to design assessments using UDL principles, to award grants to local education agencies who use UDL and to adopt technology that aligns with UDL.

NDSS is hopeful that the new ESSA bill will improve the education experience for students with Down syndrome and other disabilities. We plan to keep a watchful eye on this new regime and will rely heavily on our advocates to keep us apprised of ESSA implementation at the state and local district level.

Take Action

Click here to read a legislative request to the US Congress for robust and meaningful oversight of ESSA recommendations, which was prepared by the National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC). Please share with your Members of Congress!

For further information about actions to take, listen to this three-part webinar series on the “Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) – What You Can Do to Impact Implementation”. This series was a joint collaboration among the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), the National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) and Down Syndrome Affiliates in Action (DSAIA).

View Part 1 – January 12, 2017
View Part 2 – January 19, 2017
View Part 3 – January 26, 2017

History of ESSA

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) is the main federal law that authorizes federal spending to support K-12 schooling. It reflects the national goal that every child (including those children living in poverty, learning English, minorities and students with disabilities) is entitled to receive a high quality education by emphasizing equal access to education and establishing high standards and accountability. ESSA, signed in 2015, is the most recent reauthorization of ESEA.

ESSA replaces the No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was the 2002 reathorization of ESEA signed by President George W. Bush. The 2002 provisions for assessment and accountability in NCLB were designed to focus increased levels of attention on under-performing groups of students, including students with disabilities. The NCLB law was considered historic because it held schools accountable for how well they taught students with disabilities the curriculum, not just the skills on the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

When ESEA came up for reauthorization again in 2015, there was much debate over proposed changes to the accountability system, testing and teacher evaluation. NDSS engaged with all levels of government to work toward a reauthorization bill that had high standards for students with disabilities and strengthened accountability for student achievement, especially subgroups of students.