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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Could Make Us Less “Testy”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Robert Brescia
March 1, 2019

Mandatory standardized state public education testing–almost sounds totalitarian, doesn’t it? Why do we allow and support this level of administrative obligation? What do these tests give us? Something? Anything?

In my previous articles about public education, I discussed the federal role, as well as the constant tug-of-war between the state and the locality concerning raising the necessary money to run public schools. With respect to educational equity, both the state and the local district attempt to achieve those policy goals in somewhat of a complementary arrangement. Supposedly if the state restricts the locality’s ability to raise resources through property taxes, then the state must fill in that lost wedge. The ability to influence policy on an Independent School District (ISD) within a state roughly correlates to who is bringing the resources (money). This discussion is important because it lays the groundwork for the rationale of state standardized testing. For example in  Texas, approximately 40 percent of school district money comes from state coffers while 60 percent comes from the community.

Enter the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The most salient characteristic of this follow-on law to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the loosening of federal provisions related to state testing. Among the common complaints associated with standardized testing are way too much time spent preparing for and administering these tests, invalid and unreliable testing results and creating undue stress on the students and teachers. ESSA allows states to devise their own tests, and even invited up to seven states to come up with innovative models of their own–kind of a pilot group. ESSA also allows states to substitute the SAT or ACT in the place of standardized testing.

Why the reticence to act on the new ESSA framework? Well, as usual, politics stifles action. Many governor positions and state education superintendents were up for election in 2018. No decisions were taken and now of course, we are in 2019 with the dust beginning to settle on ESSA opportunities.

ESSA still maintains the provision that many educators detest: the requirement for standardized testing in Mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) during grades 3 through 8 and once during high school. In science, testing is required once in each of the following: third through fifth grade, sixth through ninth grade and 10th through 12th grade. ESSA has offered the states an alternative: Do testing in various intervals throughout the year and then roll up the results in a summative report. I suspect that those people recommending that approach may have never worked in education. That alternative simply makes for year-long misery as opposed to year-end misery. In addition, experts say that partial, intermittent testing could produce invalid results.

The NCLB’s School Improvement Grant program disappeared in ESSA, but the requirement that states identify the bottom 5 percent of schools continued. The new law then bumped up the percentage of Title 1 money for school improvement from 4 percent to 7 percent. The problem remains to clearly define what constitutes school improvement because there are so many initiatives to choose from. Intervention methods fall into three categories: Strong, moderate, or promising. Districts must now begin the long and daunting task of selecting improvement methodologies and intervention methods that make sense for them. They don’t have a tremendous amount of resources to apply to this task so you can bet that they are going to be very mindful about choosing a direction to fire that “silver bullet.”

The nuts and bolts of the test-taking process can prove tricky and time-consuming as well. As an example, Texas uses the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test to satisfy its federal requirement. This past year, there was a glitch in STAAR testing in April and May when connectivity issues stopped testing from twenty minutes to three hours, affecting almost 70,000 students. State Representative Brooks Landgraf has filed House Bill 736 to stop using the STAAR test for reasons that it was never intended, such as campus accountability, grade promotion, graduation and teacher evaluations.


All three levels of public education policy-players have a stake in the result, and each wants to demonstrate progress and great results. States should be placing the most focus on educational progress through great teaching and learning. Standardized testing only measures an average student’s retention of the subject matter. We have special needs students, both talented, gifted, disadvantaged and others–such standardized testing doesn’t very well measure their learning.

I believe that the lowest level of decision and action, the school district, has the most chance of improving real student learning. Therefore, while I applaud the lessening federal impact of ESSA in the testing arena, I am a proponent of further minimization of the federal role in education. Texas knows best how to manage its own affairs. If the feds want to help, just send a check with no strings attached and we’ll send back a very nice thank you note.

Dr. Robert Brescia serves as Founder & CEO of The Ethics House, a consulting startup designed to help cities and counties with their ethics programs. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television and the Permian Basin American Red Cross. Please contact him at [email protected]  or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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