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Arkansas State University

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in Special Education

In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the federal standard for public K-12 education in the United States. The goal of ESSA is to ensure a quality education for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or disability, and close the educational achievement gap. The inclusion of students with disabilities in standards-based reform has enabled those who receive special education services to make progress, if academic testing scores and high-school graduation rates over the past two decades are any indication.

Most school districts began to experience the changes created by ESSA take effect during the 2017-2018 school year. It’s critical that special education teachers understand how these requirements impact their programs and students. Educators, along with districts, schools and families, must take the ESSA framework into account as they develop special education plans.

Academic Standards

When compared to NCLB, ESSA gives states more control over standards-based reform; however, there are still federal standards that states must meet. Chief among these involve academic standards and student testing.

Students with disabilities who receive special education are expected to meet the same academic standards in math, reading and science as their peers and be included in a curriculum that will “prepare students to succeed in college and in a career.”

Significantly, ESSA allows schools to design Alternate Academic Achievement Standards (AAS) for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. These AAS, and all special education programs, must still guarantee those students are “on track to pursue” post-secondary education or community-integrated employment.

Annual Testing

States must also test students, including those receiving special education, per federal guidelines under ESSA. From third through eighth grade, all students must be tested annually in math and reading; in high school, they must be tested at least once in these areas. Students must also be tested in science once each in the following time spans: third through fifth grades, sixth through ninth grades, and tenth through twelfth grades. Under ESSA, students with disabilities are entitled to appropriate accommodations, which should be enumerated in their individualized education plans (IEPs)

With only a few exceptions granted by the U.S. Department of Education, states may offer Alternate Assessment aligned with Alternate Achievement Standards (AA-AAS) to no more than 1% of the total number of students tested in any subject. This cap is higher than the rule set forth in NCLB.

Alternative Diplomas

ESSA introduced the concept of the “alternative diploma,” which gives states the option to create a credential for students who would not otherwise be able to meet the graduation standards required by a traditional diploma. This creates a way for states to award a diploma to students with the most severe cognitive disabilities — those who participate in the AA-AAS.

Alternative diplomas may be awarded if and when states set specific expectations and requirements which follow these three criteria:

  1. They must be standards-based, meaning they are in line with grade-level content standards.
  2. The standards must be aligned with those required for a regular diploma. This means, for example, that if a student must pass four years of English language arts to graduate with a regular diploma, students receiving an alternative diploma must pass the same four years of that class, albeit under different criteria for passing.
  3. The alternative diploma must be achieved in the time a student is provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE), generally defined as between ages 3-21. In some states, that time frame is extended.

ESSA contains other significant regulations, including school performance, accountability and improvement, disciplinary practices and teacher preparation. However, in all areas, the ESSA’s primary goal is to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities and to prepare them for post-secondary education and employment by providing every student a “fair, equitable, and high-quality education.”

Learn more about A-State’s Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education K-12 online program.


National Council on Disability: Every Student Succeeds Act and Students With Disabilities

National Center on Educational Outcomes: Considerations for Developing State-Defined Alternate Diplomas for Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): What You Need to Know

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