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Aurora Institute

6 Ways States Can Redefine Student Success and Transform Education Under ESSA

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dale Frost, Maria Worthen

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA

Education career opportunities concept as a group of graduating university studends crossing a mortarboard or graduation cap acting as a bridge to provide an opportunity and bridging the gap for business success.

This blog post first appeared on Education Week on November 21, 2016.  

The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), presents states with a historic opportunity to transform K-12 education to meet the unique needs of each student.

ESSA gives states and localities flexibility to redefine student success and to work with communities on redesigning our education systems to be more flexible, responsive and connected to the real world. The new law enables state leaders to redesign systems of assessmentsaccountability models and educator preparation and development around student learning and equity.

A new report from iNACOL, Meeting The Every Student Succeeds Act’s Promise: State Policy to Support Personalized Learning, provides specific recommendations on how state policymakers can take advantage of these opportunities.

Redefining Student Success. States now have opportunities to build education systems that prepare young people for success in postsecondary education, the workforce, and civil society.

A new definition of success is crucial to drive coherent system improvements that are built around students—including instructional shifts, systems of assessments, expanded pathways and better learning environments connected to communities and to the real world.

With new, broader definitions of student success, state leaders should consider the following recommendations to transform education:


Rethink Accountability for Continuous Improvement. Under ESSA, states can now rethink the purpose, role and design of their accountability systems, reframing them for continuous improvement of student learning toward new, more meaningful definitions of success through data-rich learning environments.

ESSA requires states to use multiple measures in accountability systems, including: academic proficiency, English language proficiency, graduation rates, and at least one state-selected “measure of school quality.”

Accountability measures, taken together, should reflect the new definition of student success. Getting clear on the definition before selecting metrics is important to ensure stakeholders are empowered with the information they need to support student learning.

Refocusing accountability on continuous improvement means empowering stakeholders with timely information, shared goals, and targeted supports. This is in contrast to systems that incentivize improvement on narrow definition of success through annual rankings and one-size-fits-all interventions.

Redesign Systems of Assessments to Align With Student-Centered LearningESSA empowers states to redesign their current systems of assessments to better support educators personalizing instruction to meet each student’s needs. States can develop cohesive and balanced systems of assessments with multiple measures of student learning, rather than relying solely on a single, end-of-year test.

ESSA allows state systems of assessments to use a combination of summative, interim, and formative assessments, so long as the results can be combined into a single, summative determination of proficiency for each student.

States can use adaptive assessments to pinpoint where students are in their learning and measure individual student growth. States can also include performance tasks to measure complex demonstrations of mastery and integrate multiple points of learning evidence.

States wishing to pilot new systems of assessment within a subset of districts before scaling statewide can apply to participate in the Innovative Accountability and Assessment Demonstration Authority. The pilot allows states to test and refine new types of state systems of assessments that could better pinpoint where students are in their learning, advance students on demonstrated mastery, and tailor learning to their unique needs, interests, and pathways. These innovative new systems of assessments must meet rigorous technical quality and comparability criteria.

Transform Systems to Build Capacity for a Next Generation Educator and Leader Workforce. Meeting ESSA’s promise for student-centered learning will require building the capacity of educators and school leaders to lead change and design more effective learning environments. By removing No Child Left Behind’s Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) requirement, states can redefine what it means to be an effective educator.

Redefining educator effectiveness could drive transformation of the educator and leader workforce into a competency-based, integrated and aligned system, designed to build capacity to ensure every student has the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

A few of the most important ways states can create next generation educator preparation and development systems are:

  1. Pre-service Programs and Credentialing Requirements. Instructional competencies, created in collaboration with education stakeholders, should ensure educators have the knowledge and skills needed to help all students excel;
  2. Micro-credentials and Digital Badges. These portable recognitions of mastery hold promise to revolutionize how teachers are credentialed, licensed and receive professional development, making educator preparation and development much more meaningful and personalized; and
  3. Aligned Evaluations and Ongoing Professional Development. Educators should receive ongoing feedback so they can make adjustments in real time. States can support ongoing professional development programs where educators constantly apply what they are learning on the job and continually refine their practice.

Create Personalized, Competency-Based Education Systems. Redesigning the foundations of K-12 education to be learner-centered and competency-based will create a system that prepares all students for success.

There are multiple entry points, depending on a state’s individual policy landscape. States with few enabling policies can support innovative educators ready to move forward by studying policy barriers and creating room for local innovation through:

States with enabling policies already in place may want to consider more comprehensive steps towards transformation, such as proficiency-based diplomasinnovative systems of assessments and state-level initiatives and partnerships to develop local capacity.

Build New Learning Models Infrastructure. A well-distributed, statewide learning infrastructure is essential to implementing personalization at scale. These systems and supports can improve equity by making powerful, personalized learning possible for every student, anytime and anywhere.

Important elements of learning infrastructure for personalized, competency-based learning include:

  • High-speed, anytime/anywhere internet access for each student;
  • Secure, learner-centered data systems;
  • Open educational resources; and
  • Effective governance of student data privacy and security.

Create System Coherence and Build Capacity for the Long-Term. These policy recommendations will be most effective when they are implemented and applied in such a way as to create coherent and aligned systems designed to foster innovation for equity.

It is hard to overemphasize the incredible opportunity for states under ESSA. With an aligned vision and goals for a broader definition of student success, school leaders will design new, innovative learning models to address inequities and increase opportunity for all students. These learning environments will enable all students to graduate prepared to succeed in college, to thrive in their careers and to engage actively and effectively as citizens.

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