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This document is part of AASA’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) implementation resources. The full set of resources is available at

ESSA Standards and Assessments FAQ

What does ESSA say about state academic standards?

States are required to have “challenging” English/language arts and mathematics and science standards. These standards must be aligned to entrance requirements for credit-bearing, remediation-free coursework in the system of public higher education in the state as well as to relevant state career and technical education standards. These academic standards must measure performance at three distinct levels. 

Are states required to have Common Core standards? 

No. In fact the U.S. Secretary of Education is prohibited from mandating or incentivizing states to adopt or maintain a specific set of standards. 

Can states have alternate or modified achievement standards for students with the disabilities? 

States cannot use modified achievement standards or assessments linked to these standards. States can continue to use alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Alternate achievement standards must be aligned with the state academic content standards for general education students. The standards must be aligned to ensure that a student who meets the alternate academic achievement standards is on track to pursue postsecondary education or employment.

Is there a requirement for English language proficiency standards? 

Yes. Similar to NCLB, under ESSA each state must have English language proficiency standards that measure speaking, listening, reading and writing and are aligned with the challenging State academic standards. It does add a requirement that these standards address different levels of English proficiency. 

Does ESSA change how frequently federally mandated assessments must be administered? 

No. ESSA maintains the requirement that states administer an annual assessment of students in grades three through eight, and once in high school, in math and English/language arts, as well as science assessments given at least once in each grade span from grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12. 

Does ESSA change the types of assessments that may be used by states? 

Yes. ESSA permits states to include assessments that measure student academic growth. Academic growth may be measured using test items above and below a student’s grade level. In addition, states can use assessments in the form of portfolios, projects or extended performance tasks. In addition, assessments may be administered through a single summative assessment or through multiple, statewide interim assessments during the course of the academic year. 

Do districts have any new flexibility under ESSA in administering assessments? 

Yes. ESSA empowers LEAs to implement locally selected high school assessments if the state approves. Specifically, the district can administer a locally selected, nationally recognized high school academic assessment (like the SAT or ACT), in lieu of the state assessment. Once one LEA in the state receives approval to use an alternative high school test any other district in the state may use the same assessment. 

Do states have any new flexibility under ESSA in administering assessments? 

Yes. A state may exempt any 8th grade student from the 8th grade math test if the student takes the end of course test designed to meet the high school math assessment requirement. If a state chooses to implement this exception, the state must develop an additional, more advanced mathematics exam for these students to take in high school. 

In addition, ESSA gives the Secretary the authority to approve up to seven “innovative state assessment systems.” States participating in this project may work alone or in a consortium to develop, implement and evaluate the consequences of innovative assessment. An “innovative assessment system” may include competency‐based assessments, instructionally‐embedded assessments, interim assessments, cumulative year‐end assessments or performance assessments. States participating in the pilot will develop and administer the innovative assessment system for up to five years, after which additional states may apply to participate.

Were changes made to the administration of the alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities? 

Yes. There is a statewide cap of one percent for the number of students with significant cognitive disabilities who may participate in the alternate assessment. However, there is no one percent cap at the local level and the state cannot limit the participation of students who take the alternate assessment at the local level. The state may require districts to submit information indicating why more than one percent of students with significant cognitive disabilities must take the assessment. In addition, if there is a conflict regarding what type of assessment a student should take, ESSA indicates that IDEA trumps ESEA policy. This means that the purview of the IEP team in choosing an appropriate assessment for a student is of paramount importance, not any statewide policy or cap on participation. At an IEP meeting, parents must be informed about the alternate standards and how participation in the alternate assessment may delay or affect their child with significant cognitive disability from receiving a standard diploma. 

Were changes made to the administration of assessments for English Learners (EL)? 

Yes. Under NCLB, states could exclude the results of the recently arrived EL students in the math and English/language arts assessment for accountability purposes for the first year a student was in a U.S. school. Under ESSA, states can continue to do this or they can exempt EL students from taking the English/language arts test (and would not need to include their proficiency scores in the accountability system) for the first year they are in a U.S. school.

However, in the second year, states must use a growth measure for reading and math that demonstrates the progress ELs make in their accountability systems, in place of the end-of-year English/language arts and math assessment scores. In their third year, EL assessment scores are treated identically to all other students.