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Aurora Institute

What’s in the Senate ESEA Reauthorization Bill?—Highlights of The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 for the Field of Blended, Online, and Competency Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Maria Worthen

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

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted unanimously to advance The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (ECAA) to the full Senate. The bill would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which was last updated in 2001 with No Child Left Behind.

Overall, ECAA moves ESEA in a direction that should appeal to many in the field of blended, online and competency education. The bill would open up greater flexibility around how state systems of assessments and accountability are designed, and eliminates some time-based constructs, such as the highly qualified teacher definition. Of course, the bill is far from perfect, but that’s the nature of compromise.

Here are some key highlights of the ECAA bill (unamended full text here), as amended in this week’s committee markup:

Annual assessments: ECAA maintains NCLB’s annual testing requirement for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading/English language arts and mathematics. It also maintains disaggregation of assessment data by student subgroups. An annual determination of disaggregated student outcomes remains a critical tool to address equity in the K-12 education system.

Growth measures: ECAA allows states to use assessments that measure individual student growth for accountability purposes. This is an important step forward for all stakeholders in the education system—growth metrics provide a better understanding of how well students are learning, not just whether or not they met a relatively arbitrary average proficiency score.

Adaptive assessments: States would be allowed to use computer adaptive assessments as part of their systems of assessments. NCLB prohibited the use of adaptive assessments and the use of test items outside of a student’s actual grade level. Adaptive assessments can be used to determine where a student’s performance actually is, in addition to determining whether they have achieved grade-level proficiency. This will provide useful information to students and educators, as well as a better understanding to all stakeholders of the actual extent of the achievement gap. This language was added by an amendment from Senator Al Franken (D-MN).

Multiple measures & assess when ready: It allows states to deliver multiple assessments throughout the course of the year that can be combined into a single, end-of-year, summative score. This is an especially important step forward for competency-based education, as it opens up the possibility to administer assessments when students are ready to take them rather than one summative test at the end of the year. Allowing multiple measures throughout the year also provides an important tool for educators and students to continuously monitor and improve learning.

Innovative assessment flexibility: Five states or consortia of states would be granted flexibility to implement new state systems of assessments that can include project-based and competency-based assessments. In order to receive this flexibility, states would need to demonstrate that the system of assessments meets certain criteria of quality, rigor, and comparability. This language was in the underlying bill, but was modified by an amendment from Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT)See the letter signed by 23 organizations, including iNACOL, supporting the inclusion of an innovative assessment pilot in ESEA and outlining key principles for the final bill.

State-led accountability: ECAA eliminates “adequate yearly progress” and federally mandated school intervention models in favor of allowing states to have more flexibility in how they design their accountability systems. State accountability systems will still be required to identify low-performing schools and provide interventions and supports to improve them, but most of the details on how they do that are left up to the states. States must also use the annual statewide assessment (or approved innovative systems of assessments) and other measures such as graduation rates, postsecondary and workforce readiness, and English proficiency for English language learners. However, states will be able to decide the weights of each measure and how the information will be used to determine supports and interventions.

No more HQT: ECAA does away with the “highly qualified teacher” definition, allowing states to define this term in the way that best meets its human capital needs. For example, states could choose to move away from time-based inputs and define HQT in terms of mastery and readiness to develop new learning models.

Teacher evaluation not required: Development of teacher evaluation systems would be an allowable use of funds under ECAA, but not a required activity. While teacher evaluation systems were never required by NCLB, they have been a requirement in the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program and ESEA flexibility waivers.  ECAA makes clear that the Department of Education cannot require states to develop teacher evaluation systems.

I-TECHAn amendment from Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) establishes the I-TECH program. The program provides grants to states to support educators implementing digital learning. While the program does not incentivize a shift to student-centered new learning models and the funds could be used in their entirety for technology integration activities that are not student centered, it does make the provision of online courses and professional development for blended learning an allowable use of funds. The Horn & Staker definition of blended learning is incorporated into the legislation; definitions are important because they can form the basis for future laws and regulations that mention the term. I-TECH requires states to include a plan for how funds will be used to support educators for personalized learning and to use open educational resources. Up to 50% of funds can be used to purchase hardware, software, and connectivity.

Grants for Education Innovation and Research: The Committee adopted an amendment from Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to establish the Grants for Education Innovation and Research program. The program is modeled after the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which was funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. With this amendment, the program would be authorized in ESEA. A key difference from the i3 program is that relatively untested models could work themselves up through the grant cycle, from early phase grants to establish some evidence for the innovation, to mid-phase grants to establish a more rigorous level of evidence, to expansion grants to scale up proven programs. States, districts, and consortia of states and districts could apply for the grants, alone or in partnership with non-profit organizations, small businesses, charter management organizations, educational service agencies, and institutions of higher education.


ESEA reauthorization has several more hurdles to jump through before it can head to the President’s desk to be signed into law, including consideration and passage of ECAA by the Senate, and passage of a companion bill (the Student Success Act) in the House of Representatives.

Still, the bipartisan tone of the three-day HELP Committee markup was encouraging; members agreed to table controversial amendments to keep things moving, and debates were civil. Most encouraging of all was the 22-0 vote on the final bill.

While the bill takes a step in the right direction, more changes will be necessary to truly support and align to personalized, competency-based learning. When (and if) ECAA makes it to the full Senate, there will be an opportunity to improve on the bill through the amendment process.