Outside the Classroom

Comparing ESSA State Plans: Similarities and Differences

The Every Student Succeeds Act technically took effect in the 2017–18 school year, but with the final two state plans only receiving approval from US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in September, this year is sure to bring big changes for K–12 education. As you will recall, ESSA gives states and districts authority over their educational standards and measurements, therefore reducing the federal guidelines. However, states must still administer standardized tests and track graduation rates while also choosing at least one non-academic measure, such as absenteeism, to help quantify student success. States are still required to have “challenging” standards under ESSA, but those standards are now set by the states themselves instead of Washington. And lastly, states must intervene with their lowest performing schools.

Within these criteria, states were required to submit their plans to the Department of Education for review before implementing any significant modifications. The 2019–20 school year is bound to be one full of changes as states begin implementing their approved plans. And by comparing ESSA state plans to identify similarities and differences, educators can get a sense of where education will be trending in the next few years.

Graduation Rates

Over the past two decades, the process for setting goals for increases in graduation rates has evolved, and under ESSA, states are now required to set “ambitious” long-term goals. Across the country, states have set their new goals for graduation rates anywhere from 83% to 100%, meaning they want this percentage of students to graduate with their cohort in the standard four-year time frame. And, after comparing ESSA state plans, we can see that states are aiming to achieve these graduation rates in anywhere from 3 to 22 years. Unlike with previous graduation rate goal-setting exercises in the past, under ESSA, states have to set distinct goals for subgroups of students as well as an overall goal for all students. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia set the same graduation rate goals for student subgroups as their overall state goal. This is noteworthy because the student subgroups have varying baseline graduation rates, making some goals extremely ambitious as states try to eliminate graduation gaps by race. The other 24 states have different long-term graduation rate goals by subgroup, but still aim to make significant improvements across all races.

According to Achieve’s February 2018 analysis, “Nine states set their long-term goal for four-year graduation rates below 90 percent, 38 states set goals between 90–95 percent, and two states set their long-term goal above 95 percent.” Notably, South Dakota wants a 100% four-year graduation rate by 2030–31. It’s worth remembering, too, that all high school diplomas are not created equal, and the graduation requirements and rigor vary greatly from state to state.

Another factor is the timeline states gave themselves to accomplish these long-term goals. On average, states set goals that require a 0.9 percentage point increase in graduation rates each year, but the District of Columbia requires a 1.025 percentage point increase per year to meet their 20-year goal for 90% of students graduating in 4 years. Some need even greater gains to meet their goals, such as Idaho and New Mexico, both of which are currently in the bottom quartile for graduation rates and as such, set goals to increase graduation rates by 2 percentage points each year. Schools with higher baseline graduation rates, like Vermont and Wisconsin, set a 0.25 percentage point gain to meet their goals.

Graduation Rates vs. Proficiency

A growing cause for concern is the disparity between graduation rates and proficiency as demonstrated on states’ ELA and math summative assessments. Achieve found that in 2015–16, an average of 42% of high school students across all states demonstrated proficiency on their state assessments in math, and just 56% were proficient in reading. Yet in that same year, the graduation rate nationally was 84%.

This trend seems to be pervasive even after ESSA’s enactment, as comparing ESSA state plans reveals states’ long-term goals for graduation rates are starkly different from those set for math and ELA proficiency. Although 40 states have graduation rate goals at or above 90%, their proficiency goals are typically much lower. In fact, only five states have set consistent graduation rate and proficiency goals (including South Dakota, which wants 100% of students proficient in reading and math to match their goal for 100% graduating with their cohort in 2030–31). Notably, 29 states have set long-term proficiency goals at 75% or less for math while 23 states set the same goal for ELA. Only 18 states and the District of Columbia set consistent proficiency goals across all student subgroups and the remaining 32 set long-term achievement goals that differ by subgroup. And most states targeted goal achievement in 2025.

School Improvement Strategies

Every state plan had to outline strategies for school improvement because, under ESSA, struggling schools no longer have to follow federally required tactics. They do, however, have to implement interventions backed by evidence and study progress to see if their chosen strategy is working. Fifteen states are creating a database of evidence-backed strategies for struggling schools to choose from, while others, such as Nevada and Rhode Island, are allowing districts to come up with their own plans for improvement and housing successful strategies in a sort of “hub” for administrators to reference and build on in their own districts.

All states must allocate at least 7% of their Title I funds for disadvantaged students to school improvement, which 14 states have chosen to disperse competitively. The others will distribute funds by formula based partially on the school’s grade. Regardless of the way funds are distributed, state leaders are required to “demonstrate that…they can move the needle,” says Sara Kerr, Vice President of Education Policy Implementation at Results for America. Namely, leaders must elicit change from underperforming schools by using evidence-based solutions. Although this can be challenging, ESSA supporters hope this will encourage leaders to invest in and research new strategies to ensure they are effective, rather than just continue with the status quo.

Defining School Success

Determining which schools fall into the improvement category has also proved challenging. In December 2018, states’ redesigned school accountability systems were rolled out and received a raucous reception. State departments compiled test scores, chronic absenteeism, teacher quality, and student preparation for college and careers into data points and subsequently ranked schools across the country. These rankings affect the location of tens of millions of federal and state school improvement dollars, and district leaders and advocacy groups are concerned over the accuracy and reliability of new report cards since this is the first ranking many states have released in several years. Texas schools received a letter grade for the first time, and Utah, Florida, and Indiana struggled to align their state accountability system with the federal one so schools received two (or in some cases three) letter grades. As these kinks get worked out, schools, districts, and students are caught in the crossfire.

Differences across States

So far, experts who have reviewed the state plans don’t see much “outside-of-the-box thinking,” reports Education Week. In fact, Secretary DeVos said, “Don’t you think it’s time to do something different? To try something new that enhances student achievement?” But after comparing ESSA state plans, it appears many are coming up with unique ways to meet the challenges they have identified, such as considering child nutrition in Oklahoma and access to art classes in Connecticut. The problem is finding solutions that fit within ESSA’s requirements.

Although leaders say implementing a universal plan across a state with diverse students, regions, and needs is limiting, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico are the only three to apply for ESSA’s Innovative Assessment pilot, which allows them to try out new forms of testing in select districts before rolling it out statewide. Six states are eliminating student test scores as a requirement on their educator performance reviews. North Dakota and Oklahoma are the only two using college entrance exams instead of the state test, while Louisiana and New Mexico are reallocating Title I funding to implement direct student services, such as tutoring and dual enrollment.

What’s Not Included

What’s apparent after comparing ESSA state plans is that only 10 states explicitly include science in their accountability systems while 5 others plan to include it in subsequent years. Science assessments differ from those for math and ELA in their frequency and weight, making STEM difficult to measure and therefore receive resources. States are, however, working within the ESSA requirements to bring visibility and funding to their STEM programs.

Another deficiency across state plans is the lack of accountability for social and emotional learning (SEL). The RAND Corporation contends that an emphasis on SEL will manifest in many outcomes of interest under ESSA including: growth in academic achievement, closing achievement gaps, graduation rates, student engagement, postsecondary readiness, and school safety measures. The problem is that SEL is not explicitly outlined in ESSA requirements or, as a result, state plans, therefore making funding allocation tricky. Some education leaders were hoping that ESSA’s required fifth indicator, a measure other than test scores that differentiates student and school success, might include something around SEL. But SEL is difficult to measure, and as a result, Getting Smart reports that states are deferring to measures they are already collecting such as daily attendance, behavioral and disciplinary records, course grades, GPAs, literacy measures, and state test scores as their fifth indicator.

Comparing ESSA State Plans

As the country changes its education goals to reflect equality, academic achievement, and life-readiness, the metrics by which success is measured are also evolving. And it is on this wave of change that states define what is important to their students, parents, and educators within general federal guidelines set out under ESSA. The state plans are living documents, subject to change as governors or chief state school officers see fit as long as the public has a reasonable opportunity to comment on the plan changes. And with almost half of all states getting new governors in 2019, expect to see some details adjusted across the country. New officials in Indiana, Wyoming, and New Mexico stated they will make significant changes to their ESSA state plans and continue to shape the definition of success.

How does your state measure up?


Achieve.org. (February 2018). Thinking long term: State graduation rate goals under ESSA. Retrieved from https://www.achieve.org/files/ThinkingLongTermGraduationRateGoalsUnderESSA1.pdf
Burnette, D. (2018, December 11). Rollout of ESSA report cards frustrates school leaders. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/12/12/rollout-of-essa-report-cards-frustrates-school.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news1&M=58696259&U=2723241&UUID=4bbedb7166b1a122ea32c0e1e8c20500
Gohl, E. (2018, October 29). The importance of what ESSA plans do not include. Getting Smart. Retrieved from https://www.gettingsmart.com/2018/10/sel-the-importance-of-what-essa-plans-do-not-include/
Klein, A. (2018, April 3). ESSA progress report: How the new law is moving from policy to practice. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/04/04/essa-progress-report-how-the-new-law.html
Klein, A. (2018, April 3). Satisfying ESSA’s evidence-based requirement proves tricky. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/04/04/satisfying-essas-evidence-based-requirement-proves-tricky.html

About the Author


Emily Kirk

After growing up in the Phoenix area, Emily escaped the heat to study in Flagstaff where she graduated from Northern Arizona University with a BA in Art History. She went on to work and study at The University of Phoenix, earning her MBA. After volunteering to teach English in Chile for a semester, she worked in sales and marketing for a major ocean freight carrier. Throughout her career, Emily has also taught ballet, so she is thrilled to be part of the Where Learning Clicks team where she can combine her love of teaching and business acumen to help transform classrooms.