Reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act Crosses Finish Line

December 2015

After several months in a holding pattern, congressional authors announced in mid-November an agreement on a “framework to move forward” on the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on December 10, 2015.

As previously reported in AERA Highlights, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate each passed their own bills to reauthorize ESEA back in July. Because the two versions of the bill differed considerably, there was widespread uncertainty about whether the two chambers would reach an agreement that would get legislation to the president’s desk.

AERA has been carefully tracking the legislation, with particular interest in how it incorporates education research. The greatest change in the new bill is in the definition of research. The previous authorization, No Child Left Behind, included a definition of scientifically based research (SBR) that was quite narrow regarding what constituted reliable research. In ESSA, the SBR standard was replaced with the term evidence-based which included three tiers:

  • Strong evidence includes at least one well-designed and -implemented experimental study, meaning a randomized controlled trial.
  • Moderate evidence includes at least one well-designed and -implemented quasi-experimental study, such as a regression discontinuity analysis.
  • Promising evidence includes at least one well-designed and -implemented correlational study that controls for selection bias.

The legislation requires grantees across most programs to use evidence-based strategies and approaches.

“While we appreciate that ESSA expands the definition of scientifically based research that was included in No Child Left Behind, we have a few concerns about the identified tiered approach and its implementation on the ground,” said AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine. “While these tiers might be useful in the context of smaller scale, more locally based evaluation decisions, they are less useful in supporting state policy makers’ and education administrators’ use of cumulative knowledge in education and broader attention to systematic comparative studies and interventions.”

Levine added, “Ideally, guidance on how to determine if research is rigorous would more closely resemble the more flexible Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development developed by IES and NSF.”