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Knowledge Base

Why Testing and Accountability Matter in K–12 Education

What is ESSA, the “Every Student Succeeds Act?”

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the main education law for US public schools. The law was passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind. Its purpose is to ensure that public schools are providing a quality education to their students. ESSA gives states the flexibility to develop their own education plans within certain guidelines set by the federal government. Those guidelines include annual testing, school accountability, academic standards, and more.

Does the diversity of the United States affect its educational outcomes?

The diversity of population is not the reason why the United States does poorly in international comparisons. If you compare advantaged populations in the United States to their counterparts in other countries, the proficiency gap gets a little smaller but remains quite large. Comparing White students in the United States to other countries, or comparing students from college-educated families, shows that the gap remains. Not even half of the students from US college-educated families are proficient in mathematics. And children of college-educated parents in our highest-testing state (Massachusetts) still trailed all students in Hong Kong and Singapore. That even relatively advantaged groups in American society do not generate a high percentage of students who achieve at the proficient level in math suggests that schools are failing to reach students effectively.

What have school districts done right and done wrong when it comes to student achievement?

The impact of schools is highly dependent on the quality of teachers within each school. Schools that have been able to hire and retain very effective teachers have done well. But schools that have not done so have lagged. It turns out that we currently do not have good teacher evaluation policies, and where good evaluations exist we seldom use that information to make personnel decisions. The research suggests that this unfortunate situation stops us from the overall improvement that we would like. To be clear, most teachers are effective and should be retained. Moreover, teachers are certainly not responsible for all of the problems of achievement that we see. As noted, teachers are just one element of a child’s learning. On the other hand, we also know that effective teachers can solve many of the achievement problems—i.e., they can be the answer.