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When Equity Is Optional: School Accountability Systems Fail to Help Most Vulnerable Students Under ESSA

All4Ed Analyses Show Flexibility in Law Has Led to Students in Some States Not Getting Supports, Resources

For release: December 10, 2020

Contact: Dorie Turner Nolt, (404) 861-1127,

Washington, DC—Five years into the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are doing a wildly varied job of serving vulnerable students and closing persistent gaps required by the law, new analyses from the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) show. 

With the Biden administration taking office next month amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the data in All4Ed’s When Equity Is Optional reports shows that states and the federal government must step up to ensure that students—especially those hit hardest by the pandemic—get what they need to thrive.

All4Ed’s When Equity Is Optional analyses of early ESSA implementation across 10 states find that Black and Latino students are much more likely to receive a poorly rated education, and students of color are overrepresented in low-rated schools and underrepresented in high-rated ones. With federal accountability reporting from last year on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, All4Ed calls on state leaders to use this opportunity to create more equitable state accountability systems and to measure student learning this year to ensure that children and teens do not lose more ground. All4Ed also joined today with other education and civil rights organizations in a letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for the U.S. Department of Education to increase federal oversight of state accountability plans and take other steps to address educational inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Given that vulnerable students are being disproportionately impacted by the learning losses and trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative for states to reevaluate accountability systems to better serve students,” said All4Ed President and CEO Deborah Delisle. “With a new administration coming into office, this is one of the most important issues our country faces in education and will impact an entire generation of students. This data is a call to action for states to do the hard work now of ensuring that the students hurt the most by this pandemic get what they need to thrive. Our youth deserve the very best we have to offer them now. We need to step up and offer them hope.”

The analyses show that the state in which a student lives—not just his or her ZIP code—matters a great deal. States have used the new law’s flexibility to take such different approaches that students in low-performing schools—who are more likely to be students of color or from low-income families—have dramatically different odds of getting the supports and resources they need, the analyses show.

The states examined in the analyses are Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Washington state. All4Ed chose four of the 10 states because they are priorities for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, whose support made this data collection possible: Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, and New Mexico. The remaining states were selected based on several factors, including geographic diversity, size, and availability of data.

Key findings:


The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those underperforming and those historically underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.

November 18, 2020

Publication | Accountability and Support, Every Student Succeeds Act, Funding Equity

When Equity Is Optional

A series exploring how states used ESSA’s flexibility to take different approaches to school accountability—and the consequences of those choices for students.
Read More