Academic Content, Assessments, and Accountability 101: What Parents Need to Know


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; P.L. 114-95), details specific accountability and assessment requirements that states must develop and implement to receive federal funding. The law also explicitly restricts federal control of instructional content‎ and curriculum taught in the classrooms. Considering the local control provided in educational law today, it is important parents are meaningfully involved in the ‎development of state and school ‎district education plans as well as certain content taught in the classrooms. 

Academic Standards 

The ESEA provides that each state must adopt 1) challenging academic content standards in reading/language arts, mathematics, and science; and 2) achievement standards representing levels of achievement. In addition, States must adopt English language proficiency standards for English Learners. States may also adopt alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

State Education Plans 

Each state educational agency (SEA) is required to submit a state plan that outlines its academic standards and accountability system, among other requirements, for approval by the U.S. Department of Education in order to receive funds under Title I-A of the ESEA. This plan must be developed by the SEA with “timely and meaningful consultation” with other education stakeholders, including governors, state boards of education, members of the state legislature, school staff, and parents. State plans remain in effect for the duration of the state’s participation in Title I-A and must be periodically reviewed for revision by the SEA. 


Title I-F of the ESEA prohibits federal control of “specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum or program of instruction” of states, Local Education Agencies (LEAs), or schools. The law also clarifies that nothing in Title I of the ESEA is to be “construed to mandate equalized spending per pupil for a State, local educational agency, or school.”

State education plans outline academic standards and provide the ‎framework for how a state and school district will deliver ‎education to elementary and high ‎school students.‎ Individual school districts have considerable responsibility regarding instructional content‎ and curriculum to achieve those standards.  Local education authorities (school administrators and boards of education) have their own process for making curriculum and instructional content decisions and often balance many different competing interests. Note that some school districts may have policies and timelines specifically for curriculum challenges.  Parents with concerns about curriculum or content may become more involved with their local board of education. 

State Assessments 

Each school must administer annual statewide tests in reading/language arts and mathematics to all ‎students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as well as in science at least once in ‎grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. To give states freedom and flexibility, assessments align with each ‎state’s individual education plan and student academic standards. These assessments are a ‎way to measure student progress on content specific to each state’s unique learning ‎requirements, while shifting away from one-size-fits-all federal standardized testing.

Report Cards

Check your state report card. Each state is required to prepare and disseminate an annual report card, which must include 1) information about the state’s academic standards and accountability system; 2) schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement or schools implementing targeted support and improvement; 3) disaggregated information on student performance; 4) teacher qualifications; 5) per pupil expenditures of federal, state, and local funds; and 5) additional information related to student assessments. Find your state report card here. ‎

The National Assessment of Educational Progress

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) serves a different role than state assessments and annual report cards. While states have their own unique assessments with different content standards, the same NAEP test is administered in every state, providing a common measure of student achievement. It is a voluntary assessment for students, however, states that receive funding under Title I-A are required to participate in the reading and mathematics assessment for grades 4 and 8. Because it is the largest nationally representative assessment of what our nation’s students know and can do in various subjects, these scores help contextualize education nationwide. ‎Find out how your state compared to others’ on the most recent NAEP assessment, results here