A Path Forward: Recommendations for ESEA Reauthorization to Support Improvements in Assessment and Accountability

Starting a Discussion on How Federal Policy Can Better Support Innovation to Increase Student Learning Opportunities

Here at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, we think a lot about the multiple factors involved in promoting student learning through more meaningful state assessment and accountability systems. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the current authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is the most significant influence on contemporary state assessment and accountability.  We believe a number of changes to ESEA could help promote innovation, restore balance, and improve outcomes. This post summarizes recommendations from our recent policy brief regarding an  ESEA reauthorization, which could occur as soon as 2021. Please refer to the brief to review our detailed recommendations.   

A Look Back 

The introduction of the ESEA in 1965 into K-12 education represented a sweeping federal initiative aimed at improving the equality of educational opportunities for public school students.  Over the years, we have seen subsequent versions—or reauthorizations—shift focus from inputs to outputs and place increasing constraints and requirements on state assessment and accountability systems. The 1994 ESEA reauthorization, the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA), ramped up the federal policy influence on assessment system design. But it was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the 2001 reauthorization, that exerted a massive influence on states’ accountability systems. 

ESSA offered more assessment and accountability flexibility than NCLB—a low bar—but we contend it is still far too restrictive to spur the types of innovation necessary to support the learning and organizational changes we need to see for our students and schools. 

For example, the basic assessment requirements of testing all students’ English language arts and mathematics performance in grades 3-8 and once in high school remain in place, as does the requirement for testing science achievement once each in elementary, middle, and high school. 

True, the law permits states to allow districts to use “nationally-recognized” college readiness assessments in place of their high school assessments, as long as such assessments meet the same technical requirements. 

The law also allows states to use multiple interim assessments in place of a single summative assessment, but no state has yet to take advantage of this purported flexibility because of numerous challenges, as our colleagues Nathan Dadey and Brian Gong explained in this paper.

We acknowledge the ESSA accountability system’s requirements are considerably broader than the narrow Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of NCLB with the inclusion of multiple types of indicators beyond achievement and graduation. We want to build on some of the positive flexibility of ESSA, but we also want to find ways to support improvements in assessment and accountability for the ultimate purpose of increasing student learning opportunities. 

A Look Ahead 

As the Center’s body of work demonstrates, we have quite an appetite for innovation; however, we are also very familiar with practical limitations. In our experience, assessment and accountability design is always a case of operationalization under constraints. Importantly, policy requirements are a key constraint for the design and implementation of state-level assessment and accountability systems. 

We summarize our assessment, accountability, innovation, and research recommendations below. 


  • Incentivize the development of balanced assessment systems that go beyond summative measures.
  • Provide alternatives to the ‘every student, every grade, every year’ summative assessment model. Sampling approaches, such as matrix designs, are a promising alternative.  
  • Revise overly-restrictive technical requirements, including regulations and guidance, that place too many burdens on the summative assessment, such as those intended to elicit detailed diagnostic information, which is at odds with accountability uses.


  • Provide more meaningful flexibility than ESSA allows with respect to the selection and implementation of indicators and outcomes, giving states the freedom to design approaches connected to a defensible theory of action.  For example, lifting the onerous requirements for the school quality/student success indicator may promote innovation. 
  • Move beyond a one-size-fits-all accountability model, such as by allowing states to implement approaches that better support the unique mission of alternative schools. 
  • Include districts and states in a balanced accountability system to make clear that schools are not solely responsible for student achievement. 

Innovation and Research

  • Provide space and funding (e.g. competitive grants) for ‘innovation laboratories,’ such as allowing states to try out a limited number of initiatives without the pressures of scaling-up in a constrained timeline. 
  • Implement a program similar to the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) focused on novel and promising accountability models.  
  • Fund a robust research-to-practice agenda and convene leading research and state practice organizations to help frame the agenda. 

We view all of these recommendations as a starting point in discussions among colleagues and partners to help policymakers imagine rich and systematic ways of improving the education of all of our students. We look forward to your engagement and your comments.