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Making the Most of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – Helping States Focus on School Equity, Quality and Climate

BOULDER, CO (November 15, 2016) – As staff in state departments of education across the U.S. diligently review and revise their accountability systems to meet the new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), they have opportunities to promote equity and positive school climate.

In a policy memo released today, William Penuel, Elizabeth Meyer, and Michelle Renée Valladares of the University of Colorado Boulder provide guidance to states for selecting more inclusive school quality and student success indicators for accountability systems.

ESSA is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, replacing No Child Left Behind as the primary federal law guiding K-12 education policy. Though the federal accountability system under ESSA is still primarily focused on a familiar set of academic indicators, such as state assessments, the new act brought many significant changes.

“What makes ESSA different is that it also requires state decision-makers to include a ‘non-academic’ indicator, which can offer a window of opportunity for states to consider issues of school quality or student success beyond test scores,” explains Professor Penuel. “Our goal with this memo is to help states weigh their options.”

Rather than provide a fixed list of indicators that each state should adopt, or even a fixed list of categories for states to consider, the authors of Making the Most of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – Helping States Focus on School Equity, Quality and Climate describe the risks and possibilities that states should consider when deciding on indicators. In doing so, they point toward the twin areas of opportunities to learn and school climate.

The memo, published by the National Education Policy Center, recommends the following approaches for selecting indicators that address the importance of equity and of students’ perceptions of support, safety, and respect in the classroom:

  • Identify indicators that signal the importance of equity, including opportunities to learn and creating safe and inclusive learning environments.
  • Adopt multiple non-academic indicators that states and schools can report in their annual report cards.
  • Carefully combine indicators to signal what is important and avoid perverse incentives for manipulating any one indicator.
  • Create reciprocal accountability in which district and state leaders have responsibility to provide resources and create conditions needed to improve quality and student success indicators.
  • Help schools make sense of data on quality and student success indicators by coupling them with opportunity and resource indicators.
  • Identify potential evidence-based resources ahead of time that can support schools in improving performance on the indicators and where there may be gaps in available resources.
  • Develop an accountability plan that funds and supports school improvement for schools that need it.
  • Plan for a multi-stage rollout that can make new measurement approaches more successful and manageable over time.

“As states and districts work to implement ESSA, non-academic indicators can signal a move away from punitive, high-stakes testing and towards a more holistic understanding of what helps students and educators thrive in school settings,” said Elizabeth Meyer, Associate Dean for Teacher Education at CU Boulder. “Adapting measures that have a focus on equity and on improving school environments for the most vulnerable students can help states emphasize programs and interventions that can move schools in directions that promote positive, healthy, and high-achieving environments.”

Find Making the Most of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – Helping States Focus on School Equity, Quality and Climate, by William Penuel, Elizabeth Meyer, and Michelle Renée Valladares, on the web at:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: