For the first time since the 1980s, the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education is shrinking. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last December gives states greater flexibility and control over the way student achievement is measured. ESSA gives the states greater authority with respect to standards and assessments, and imposes new restrictions on U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) oversight of education.
ESSA essentially does away with the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. Gone is the federal system that judged schools based on math and reading test scores, and required schools to raise scores every year or face penalties. In its place is a new system that permits each state to develop its own methods for weighing test scores, measuring school quality, evaluating teachers, and dealing with troubled schools. Not surprisingly, each state will likely implement ESSA differently.
ESSA requires each state to develop a plan describing how ESSA will be implemented. The Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) has begun developing the required state plan. Herein lies the risk of ESSA --- there are those who oppose Florida’s stringent academic standards, and the accountability system used to measure students’ mastery of these standards, who will look at ESSA as an opportunity to take steps backward. We cannot afford to let that happen.
Under the leadership of Commissioner Stewart and the State Board of Education, Florida has seen dramatic improvements in student learning gains, accountability, graduation rates, funding, and other important performance metrics. Florida’s current academic standards require students to demonstrate a variety of higher-order skills and think more critically and than in the past.
Florida businesses and corporations rely heavily on the public education system to provide graduates who have the knowledge and skills necessary to meet their workforce needs and that permit them to compete nationally and in the global marketplace. It is essential that the ESSA state plan reflect a continued commitment to the current high academic standards, including alternate standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities and standards for English proficiency.
Over the past 15 or 20 years, we have raised the bar several times --- not because our students fail to reach it, but because every time we raise the bar our students respond with greater achievement gains, and a highly competitive global economy demands it. The use of rigorous and challenging academic standards must be continued under ESSA.
ESSA gives states greater flexibility as to how student mastery of the standards is assessed. Parents who support the concept of “fewer and better tests,” will be relieved to learn that ESSA permits the use of nationally recognized assessments in high school (such as the SAT and ACT) in lieu of the current Florida Standards Assessment to measure student learning gains in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and end-of-course subjects. This was the subject of legislation during the last session that was fiercely debated and ultimately failed to pass. Of course, what is permissible in Florida will be that which is reflected in the state plan being developed by the Florida Department of Education.
What happens in our classrooms today will determine Florida’s economic strength and sound citizenship in the future. Our school administrators, teachers and students are to be commended for the hard work taking place in classrooms throughout Florida as we move to the next level of excellence and implementation of ESSA.
Parents, taxpayers, and everyone with a stake in public education are strongly encouraged to get involved in this process and closely monitor the development and implementation of the state ESSA plan. This will ensure a brighter future for students, a better prepared workforce, greater value for Florida’s hardworking taxpayers and a stronger economy for all Floridians.