How the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 Affects Your Child with Special Needs


On Dec. 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a civil rights bill that ensures an equitable education for all students. The ESSA replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and its provisions will go into effect over the next four years.

Academic standards

Similar to NCLB, under ESSA each state must develop, or demonstrate that it currently has, “challenging academic standards” in mathematics, reading/language arts and science for all public school students, including students with disabilities. ESSA further requires that the academic standards be aligned with the entrance requirements of state colleges and universities and with relevant state career and technical education standards.

Local impact: ESSA does not require the Common Core curriculum but allows states to use it. Currently, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania all have aligned their standardized assessments to that curriculum.

Standardized tests

The ESSA changes the testing requirements of NCLB and adds other provisions to help children with disabilities reach parity with typically developing students and be career and college ready.

States must administer annual math and English/language arts assessments to students in grades 3-8. High school students must take only one annual standardized assessment. ESSA also calls for one science assessment in elementary, middle and high school.

The new legislation provides more flexibility in assessments :

• Schools can use the ACT or SAT for high school students.

• Districts can cap the amount of instructional time used to prepare for standardized testing.

• Schools have the option to use projects and portfolios as part of assessments.

Local impact: ESSA also leaves it up to the states whether students may opt out of standardized testing. Delaware and New Jersey do not currently have opt-out provisions. However, in Pennsylvania, parents can excuse their children for religious objections if they submit a letter to their school district.

See page 2 for test accommodations and more. 


Test accommodations

ESSA continues the requirement that students with disabilities receive test accommodations and sup- ports in line with their IEPs so they can participate in statewide assessments.

ESSA also provides for an alternative assessment based on alternative academic standards for students with severe cognitive disabilities. However, the new law mandates that no more than 1% of all assessed students (about 10% of students with disabilities) can participate in such an assessment.

Local impact: The IEP team must inform parents if they decide that a child will take an alternate assessment. These students should be permitted to get a regular high school diploma, although they can also receive a state-defined alternate diploma.


The accountability system requires the state to set long-term goals to determine whether students are achieving. Schools must measure achievement by means other than tests alone.

Local impact: Each state, local education agency and school must report test results of children with disabilities as compared to typical children without disabilities. Children with disabilities can learn, and states cannot ignore this population or exclude them from the numbers.

New programs

ESSA encourages a focus on the academic progress of children with disabilities by offering grants to states when they help these students succeed. Some of the new programs that can be funded include:

• Literacy support for students with learning disabilities

• Comprehensive school mental health services

• Improvements in school climate and safety

• Strategies to reduce bullying, harassment and overuse of discipline

These programs aim to address some of the significant hurdles faced by children with disabilities. By making these and many other changes under ESSA, the federal government intends that a larger percentage of students will be prepared to start a job or attend college after graduation.

Jessica Freid, Esq. is a law clerk at Batchis, Nestle & Reimann, LLC, The Special Education Law Group​.


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