ESSA and Accountability: From Policy to Practice

How the legislation affects district planning

The Every Student Succeeds Act provides states and districts with increased autonomy to create accountability systems and improvement plans. In light of the opportunities created by ESSA, how can administrators use new test scores to engage stakeholders in the planning and improvement process? What broader measures of student success are districts using to determine school and teacher performance?

In this web seminar, Curriculum Associates’ research and policy experts discussed the new ESSA legislation and how districts can use the most recent round of released data and other key indicators to improve learning for all students.


Luci Willits
Associate Vice President, Policy
Curriculum Associates

Peter Swerdzewski
Director of Research
Curriculum Associates

Kimberly Wiggins
Assessment Coordinator
St. Vrain Valley Schools (Colo.)

Patrick Kilcullen
Priority Programs Coordinator
St. Vrain Valley Schools (Colo.)

Luci Willits: The implementation of ESSA represents America’s greatest shift in federal education law since No Child Left Behind in 2001. No Child Left Behind was research-based and ESSA is evidence-based. It’s about efficacy. ESSA’s new approach encourages adopting activities with established evidence bases and proven results.

Although there is no official approval process for evidence-based solutions under ESSA, the law does outline four evidence-based levels for educational materials. They are:

1. Strong evidence
2. Moderate evidence
3. Promising evidence
4. Demonstrates a rationale

These categories are defined solely by the type of study conducted, not by the strength of the study results.

Peter Swerdzewski: The study type should not be the deciding factor in determining whether to select a product or activity. If researchers chose a different study to meet the evidence-based guidelines, it is often because another one was better suited for meeting more practical criteria concerning most districts. For instance, Level 4 isn’t necessarily a study. It’s more like an intention to do one. Level 3, known as “promising evidence” requires at least one correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias. Level 3 studies are usually performed using available data and are common in education research.

Level 2 is known as “moderate evidence.” This study requires quasi-experimental design, meaning we have more stringent control. When measuring outcomes, we can say any success was due to the intervention, not another factor.

Level 1 is also known as “randomized control trials.” They are rare and more common in medicine. In a randomized education study, some students do not receive the intervention, so they may act as a control for the sake of the study.

Kimberly Wiggins: In the St. Vrain Valley School District here in Colorado, our motto is “ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE BY DESIGN.” We had already been purposeful in using evidence-based interventions, so our response to ESSA felt aligned with our data-driven culture.

Patrick Kilcullen: One shift under ESSA is that the Unified Improvement Plan is a living document that principals and teachers go back to continuously. We’ve moved away from just complying with what the state wants to making the improvement plan our driving force.
Kimberly Wiggins: We use data to inform our Tier I intervention, differentiation and small-group intervention. With students, we’re often talking about goal setting in a different way.

We believe in the design-thinking process. This is a problem-solving approach that originates in engineering and design. Not all of our schools have a formal STEM curriculum, but the design-thinking process helps students empathize. They see themselves and others in the context of community learning goals. We share data with students, and we talk about what’s needed to achieve college and career readiness.

Because we align our work with state standards, the performance on state summatives or even independent formatives is often the same as in students’ everyday, independent work.

Patrick Kilcullen: It’s amazing to go into kindergarten or first-grade classes and hear kids talk about their own learning or empathy development, as a part of the improvement design process. We have buy-in for a data-informed culture at our schools. I feel like, regardless of zip code and free or reduced-price lunch status, we have the same high expectations and the tools to help teachers and kids get to grade-level standards districtwide.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit

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