About the Author: Sarah Jane Rogers is a first-year law student at American University Washington College of Law. Sarah graduated from Florida State University and hopes to work on education policy in a government agency or on the Hill.


In 2015 the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was enacted with the goal of ensuring public schools provided all children equitable opportunities to receive quality education, specifically targeting improvement for low-income, disabled, English second language, and students of color.[1] The law was passed to replace the No Child Left behind Act to increase education accountability and close the achievement gap.

ESSA includes provisions to improve the success of students, including protections for high needs students, increased academic standards, required state-wide assessments, and state-led accountability. Prior to its enactment 1 in 6 public schools did not satisfy state standards for student achievement in the 2014-2015 school year; and, in 12 percent of public high schools at least one third of students did not graduate within four years.[2] To combat these issues and close the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, Congress passed ESSA.[3]

Unfortunately, the implementation of ESSA has not provided the desired equitable public education for all students. ESSA placed power in States’ hands to regulate funding and set the standards of how achievement would be measured within the state.[4] However, civil rights organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have questioned if some states are complying with the law. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a statement that the Department of Education gave incorrect approval to noncompliant state plans; further noting that the noncompliant state plans were not effectively serving all students within the state. For example, the approved Massachusetts plan, which called to measure the performance of their “high-needs group,” combined the performance of low-income, disabled, and non-English speaking students. Combining assessments of separate high-needs student groups fails to accurately measure the success of each individual group, creating an inability to effectively assess the educational barriers a particular group may be vulnerable to.[5]

The COVID-19 pandemic brought substantial difficulty in the implementation of ESSA during the 2020-2021 academic year. The assessment of student performance is a principal requirement of ESSA, however due to the COVID-19 pandemic many states did not have the ability to administer standardized testing.[6] In response, the U.S. Department of Education waived the required administration of standardized testing and accountability requirements.[7] In addition, in 2020 some states passed legislation allowing state boards or departments to request waivers for future assessment and accountability, which could cause difficulty in identifying schools and student groups that require increased resources.

While there are struggles in the implementation of ESSA, states already have access to resources allocated through the Act that can increase student performance. For instance, ESSA permits states to allocate three percent of Title I funding to direct student services.[8] Direct student services is a provision that provides states the ability to allocate funding to a wide range of individualized academic services that improve student success in low performing schools. This funding can support low performing schools by providing support through tutoring services or high-quality remote course options to students struggling in the traditional learning environment.[9] States have access to a wide range of specialized federal funding through ESSA such as direct student services that if properly implemented can greatly increase the quality of education and resources for struggling students and schools.

[1] Every Student Succeeds Act, 20 U.S.C. § 6301 (2015).

[2] The Every Student Succeeds Act Creates Opportunities to Improve Health and Education at Low-Performing Schools 1, Pew Charitable Tr. (2017), https://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2017/08/hip_the_every_student_succeeds_act_creates_opportunities_to_improve_health_and_education_at_low_performing_schools.pdf.

[3]  Id.

[4]  Id.

[5]  Letter from Leadership Conf. Civ. Hum. Rts. et al., to Lamar Alexander, Senate Comm. Health, Educ., Lab. and Pensions Chair (Apr. 10, 2018) (on file with author).

[6] Annika Phase, Board of Education discusses the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), The Tide (Oct. 25 2021), https://thermtide.com/14636/news/board-of-education-discusses-the-every-student-succeeds-act-essa.

[7] Megan McMann et al., States Assess Accountability Requirements During COVID-19, Ed Note (Apr. 5, 2021), https://ednote.ecs.org/states-assess-accountability-requirements-during-covid-19

[8] Jessica Poiner, ESSA: The potential of direct student services, Thomas B. Fordham Inst. (May 9, 2016), https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/essa-potential-direct-student-services

[9] Id.