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Every Student Succeeds Act: Early Observations on State Changes to Accountability Systems

GAO-17-757T Published: Jul 18, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 18, 2017.
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What GAO Found

Representatives of all nine national stakeholder groups we spoke with saw the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) accountability provisions as somewhat flexible, with most indicating that ESSA strikes a good balance between flexibility and requirements. Accountability systems measure student and school performance and provide information on that performance to key stakeholders—parents, teachers, government officials, and taxpayers. States are currently developing plans for accountability systems under ESSA. One stakeholder said that ESSA “threads the needle very well” between giving states flexibility in designing their accountability systems and placing requirements on states to help ensure that all children have access to a good education. Most stakeholders also mentioned ESSA provisions related to developing performance indicators as an example of flexibility. Some states are using ESSA’s flexibilities to significantly change their accountability systems while others are making more limited changes. Representatives of four national stakeholder groups that have worked directly with states to help them develop and revise their accountability systems told us that the extent to which states are revising their accountability systems varies because some states are satisfied with their current systems and others are using the flexibilities in the law to make significant overhauls. According to representatives of one stakeholder group, many states already began revising their accountability systems and ESSA is generally flexible enough for states to continue down the path they already started. In addition, representatives of several stakeholder groups mentioned that for states that see their current accountability systems as lacking in some way, or because consultation with state stakeholders has pointed to the need for significant change, ESSA provides room for them to consider innovative revisions.

U.S. Department of Education (Education) officials said their next steps in implementing ESSA are to review and approve state plans and to continue to provide technical assistance to states. As of May 2017, 16 states and the District of Columbia had submitted their plans to Education for review; the remaining plans are due by September 18, 2017, according to Education’s guidance. Education officials also told us they are determining whether there is a need for additional guidance to states on aspects of ESSA implementation. Education has also implemented a technical assistance initiative called the State Support Network to support state and district school improvement efforts under ESSA. Education officials said that they are developing monitoring protocols for in-depth reviews of states’ ESSA-related activities and will pilot them in early 2018. These protocols are intended to guide in-depth reviews of state activities related to ESSA implementation.

Why GAO Did This Study

As a condition of receiving federal education funds for school districts with high concentrations of students from low-income families, ESSA requires states to have accountability systems that meet certain requirements, but grants states flexibility in designing these systems. In general, ESSA requires states to measure the performance of their schools and use those measures to identify underperforming schools and student subgroups for additional assistance.

GAO issued a report in July 2017, entitled Every Student Succeeds Act: Early Observations on State Changes to Accountability Systems (GAO-17-660). This testimony summarizes the findings from that report, including (1) selected stakeholders’ and states’ views of ESSA’s flexibilities to redesign accountability systems and (2) the Education’s next steps in implementing ESSA.


GAO did not make any recommendations in its July 2017 report.

Full Report

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Academic achievementAccountabilityEducationElementary school studentsElementary schoolsPerformance managementReporting requirementsSchool districtsSecondary schoolsSecondary school studentsStudentsStandards based educationPerformance measurementSchool improvement