Though the Every Student Succeeds Act has provided states with much-needed flexibility, some critics argue that state departments of education have become too lax as a result.

Passed into law in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was intended to correct many of the longstanding problems that plagued its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. One of the major criticisms of the 2002 legislation was that it placed an outsized emphasis on standardized testing, which many educators and policymakers argued didn’t provide a sufficiently holistic picture of students’ progress.

ESSA created the opportunity for each state to develop its own accountability standards with which to gauge student performance, granting educators the flexibility they felt No Child Left Behind sorely lacked. However, with nearly two years of ESSA implementation under the nation’s belt, some are questioning whether the act is living up to the “every” in its name — and whether some states are taking their newfound flexibility a few steps too far. U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) — the current Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor — notably falls into this camp.

Last month, Representative Scott gave an impassioned speech at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers in which he suggested that ESSA has overshot the mark, creating too much leeway in how states evaluate schools’ success. “The law’s flexibility is not a blank check,” he reportedly said, explaining that he’s “disappointed that states are ignoring subgroup performance.”

Representative Scott’s concerns are hardly off-base, as recent reports indicate that ESSA may, in fact, be leaving certain students behind.

ESSA’s Flexible Requirements

Though ESSA grants states the flexibility to create accountability systems that reflect their local context, the law expressly requires states to hold schools accountable for the performance of all groups of students. States’ ESSA implementation plans must include indicators covering five key areas: proficiency in reading and math, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency, student growth throughout elementary and middle school, and one additional indicator of school quality or student success.

States are required to rate schools based on their performance in each indicator — for all students and each student subgroup. Ostensibly, if one group of students is consistently underperforming, the school’s rating should reflect that. However, a report from The Education Trust reveals just how easy it is for a school to look like it’s performing well on the surface while still letting down certain groups of students.

Exploring the Problems with ESSA

For instance, according to the report, an elementary school serving a student body that is about half white and 20 percent black will appear to be high-performing if 85 percent of its students are performing at grade level in math and 79 percent of its students are performing at grade level in reading. However, upon breaking down those averages, it may very well turn out that 92 percent of white students are performing at grade level, whereas only 54 percent of black students are. Despite this troubling discrepancy, such a school would likely receive an “A” grade from its state.

The report contends that scenarios like this occur far too frequently, as a number of states rely on sweeping averages rather than the performance of student subgroups when awarding school ratings. In New Mexico, Florida, and Maryland, for instance, school ratings are based entirely on schoolwide averages, meaning they offer no insight into subgroup performance.

While it’s easy to see how such ratings systems might cause students from certain subgroups to slip through the cracks, it’s fair to say that state departments of education are not intentionally underserving disadvantaged students. But the reality is that it takes a great deal of attention to ensure every student, regardless of background, has the greatest possible chance to succeed — attention that, in turn, requires ample resources.

As such, truly honoring the “every” of ESSA will require school districts to secure the maximum amount of funding to which they’re entitled — which is where Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform comes into play. CheckPoint removes all the guesswork from the reporting process, allowing districts to catalog and submit student data accurately, quickly, and easily. Ultimately, doing so is a necessary condition of giving every student the best — and most equitable — education possible.