Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): What to Know

In 2002, the U.S. Congress developed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to address concerns regarding public education. Over the years, problems with the NCLB emerged. One of the most common issues was its heavy reliance on test scores to measure success. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the law that replaced the NCLB in 2015. Its purpose is to provide high-quality education to all students.

The ESSA shifted decision-making from a federal to a state level. While it still requires standardized testing, that is only one factor in measuring success. The ESSA also provides more funding. This gives teachers, students, and families more resources to overcome barriers.

This article discusses the purpose, highlights, and standards of the ESSA. 

Differences Between ESSA and NCLB

Differences between the ESSA and NCLB include:

  • ESSA shifted decision making from the federal to the state level 
  • ESSA requires states to get input from families
  • ESSA includes more than test scores for measuring success
  • ESSA provides more grant funding for literacy and programs
  • With ESSA, disadvantaged schools and students have more resources
Schoolgirl studying with video online lesson at home

VioletaStoimenova / Getty Images


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a law that replaced the NCLB in 2015. Its purpose is to provide high-quality education to all children in the U.S., better prepare students for life after high school, and address barriers for disadvantaged children.

ESSA Highlights

ESSA shifts decision-making to a state rather than federal level. It provides states the opportunity to recognize and help low-performing schools.

ESSA also provides more involvement in improvement efforts for parents and the community.  

States set high academic challenges. However, they have more flexibility in testing and measuring success. The following are a few highlights from ESSA.

High Expectations and Increased Student Achievement

States are required to set challenging academic standards and be specific about how they will measure those standards. States and school districts must provide state report cards to parents online.

What this means for students: Students have clear expectations and know how they and their school are progressing.

What this means for teachers: Teachers receive appropriate training and instructional materials. They remain aware of student expectations and if students or subgroups of students are improving or falling behind.

Recognition of Gaps in Achievement

Each state is responsible for identifying and providing solutions for poor-performing schools, students, and subgroups of students.

Examples of these subgroups of students include:

  • Minorities
  • Children with disabilities
  • Children who live in poverty
  • English-language learners 
  • Children who are homeless
  • Children who live in foster care
  • Children of parents who are in the military

What this means for students: The ESSA encourages faster recognition of disadvantaged students and provides them with more resources.

What this means for teachers: Teachers recognize students or sub-groups where creative teaching strategies may be needed.

More Flexibility at a Local Level

ESSA provides flexibility in decision-making at a local level, including how and when to give standardized tests. While ESSA still requires standardized testing, schools, teachers, and students are not evaluated on tests alone.

Evaluation includes four academic factors and at least one school quality measurement. This encourages a focus on a well-rounded education that involves social and emotional learning.

What this means for students: Schools can measure a portion of student success by creativity and progress rather than test scores.

What this means for teachers: Teachers are no longer evaluated solely on their student’s standardized test scores. This allows them more time and freedom to nurture creativity or mindsets.

Increased Funding 

Increased funding provides resources that help high-risk students meet academic standards. This includes activities, programs, or courses to create a well-rounded education.

A few examples of where schools can use funds can include:

  • School psychological services
  • School safety 
  • Parental engagement
  • Music or art courses
  • After-school or summer programs
  • Physical education

What this means for students: Programs such as prekindergarten help provide an educational foundation for all students, regardless of financial barriers. Psychological services can help with student resilience, performance, and coping mechanisms. Studying music teaches children teamwork, creativity, concentration, and social skills. These skills will help them stand out when entering the workforce or college after graduation.

What this means for teachers: Increased funding can help teachers receive more training and professional development. 


ESSA ensures that states set high academic standards for all schools and students. Schools assess performance in reading, math, and science. The standards also apply to teacher training, curriculum, and instructor materials.

Academic Standards

States and schools set challenging standards that apply to all students. Academic standards define what each student should learn for each grade.

Common Core

States can still use common core standards if that works best for them. However, the federal government does not encourage states to use this measurement.

Annual Testing

Like the NCLB, the ESSA requires yearly standardized testing for reading and math for children in third to eighth grade. It also involves testing in science at least three times before graduation.

The ESSA allows for flexibility regarding the types and timing of the tests. Schools can decide to test once a year or several times throughout the year. 

School Accountability

The state submits its plan for standards and evaluation to the federal government for approval. Once approved, states measure how schools are doing and hold them accountable for student learning and achievement.

While tests scores may still be a factor, ESSA encourages states to measure success in additional ways. States choose at least four academic factors and one school factor for evaluation.

Academic and School Quality Factors

Examples of factors include:

  • Graduation rates
  • English-language proficiency tests
  • Advanced coursework
  • Progress
  • Absenteeism
  • College readiness
  • School culture

Reading and Literacy Programs

ESSA emphasizes providing resources to students, subgroups, or schools that are falling behind. This includes creating programs such as the National Center on Improving Literacy. It focuses on reading, comprehension, and literacy skills for children with disabilities, including dyslexia.

ESSA provides funding to help schools increase literacy by providing up to $192 million in grant funds to states and schools that struggle in this area.


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the education policy or law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2015. The ESSA's purpose is to provide high-quality education to all students. It shifts decision-making from a federal to a state level, giving states more flexibility. 

While states set high academic standards for all students, they have more say about measuring and testing. One of the act's goals is faster recognition and use of resources for students, subgroups, or schools who are falling behind.

A Word From Verywell 

If you are a parent or caregiver, you may have questions about what ESSA means for you, your family, and the community. One of the most positive aspects of ESSA is that it requires states to get input from parents and families as they create state plans and work on improvement. If you want to be more involved, reach out to your school district or state education department to learn more. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the ESSA still in effect?

    Yes, as of 2022, ESSA is still in effect. However, the U.S. Department of Education allowed adjustments to accountability measures during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. This was due to circumstances created by COVID-19.

  • Is the ESSA an improvement over NCLB?

    Yes, if applied correctly, it is an improvement over NCLB. The ESSA gives states more flexibility, decreases the emphasis on standardized test scores, and provides more program funding. However, it is relatively new, and congress plans to re-evaluate it to ensure it works the way it intended. 

  • How does the ESSA affect teachers?

    Schools will no longer evaluate teachers based on test scores alone. Ideally, teachers will also have more input regarding curriculums, standards, tests, and solutions for underperformance. Increased funding involves more teacher training and development. 

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Every Student Succeeds Act, 20 USC §6301 et seq. (2015).

  2. Understood for All Inc. The difference between the Every Student Succeeds Act and the No Child Left Behind.

  3. Center on Standards & Assessment Implementation. Accountability requirements for subgroups of students

  4. National Education Association. How ESSA helps advance social and emotional learning.

  5. NAMM Foundation. Music is part of a well-rounded education.

  6. National Association of School Psychologists. ESSA title IV funding opportunities.

  7. Society of Health and Physical Educators. Every Student Succeeds Act: 10 top tools for health and physical educators.

  8. Department of Education. Fiscal year 2022 budget summary.

  9. United States Department of Education. Frequently asked questions: Impact of COVID-19 on 2021-2022 accountability systems required under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).