Flashpoints Emerge as States Step Up ESSA Planning

Tight timelines loom as work continues

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States are still moving through the gears of preparing their accountability systems and federally mandated plans under the new policy environment created by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Although a few flashpoints have already emerged, they're not the only issues that highlight the challenges states face.

The U.S. Department of Education's requirement in draft rules to have each school receive a single summative rating has led to particularly pronounced backlash in California and Kentucky. Flying in the face of those draft federal rules, California earlier this month approved a system without a summative rating for each school.

Some K-12 officials and advocates also are worried about what they see as a relatively tight timeline for identifying schools that need fundamental overhauls.

But plenty of other states are still deciding how exactly to tackle those issues, as well as others that may not be as prominent.

State leaders likely still have a good amount of time before their ESSA plans are due. The proposed regulations for state plans and accountability, released in May, would require states to turn in their plans by either March or July of next year. And those accountability regulations themselves likely won't be final until the end of this year.

In an ESSA presentation given last week, Colorado officials noted key decision points and where current state accountability policy does not line up with what ESSA requires.

For example, the presentation indicated the state still must decide what to use as an indicator of school quality and student success, which ESSA requires as a measure set apart from more traditional measures, like test scores and graduation rates. It said Colorado already tracks dropout and matriculation rates, which could be used as indicators.

The state also is pondering what officials called a "major" upcoming decision about how to deal with test-participation numbers. Colorado has dealt with relatively high opt-out figures the past few academic years.

And during the summer in Illinois, state officials paused their development of a "balanced accountability measure," which was aimed at judging schools on test scores as well as the various factors affecting their particular districts, after ESSA passed and those involved in that balanced measure considered the law's impact. That effort is starting back up in the fall, but the state now has to consider how such a measure would work with federal law.

Gathering Opinions

At the moment, states are largely focused on getting the opinions of various groups connected to education as they decide how to handle the new law, according to Carissa Miller, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers.

"Because every state is different, the way each state engages stakeholders will vary. Some states have decided to put together draft plans and make them available for public comment," Miller said in a statement. "However, states are still in the planning phases of this work."

Arizona released an "initial draft" of its consolidated plan for ESSA this month. However, the Sept. 7 document contains very little addressing hot-button accountability issues, from how to define "consistently underperforming" subgroups of students and the state's long-term goals, to which indicator Arizona might use to measure school quality or student success. No specific preliminary decisions or preferred options are listed for those and other high-profile accountability issues.

The state has an A-F school grading system for accountability on the books, although it was suspended for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years while Arizona shifted to a new exam. But the state school board still has big decisions to make about how it will change the A-F system itself, and those decisions in turn will affect the state's ESSA accountability plan. The initial draft, on which the state is seeking public comment, refers to as-yet-unknown state board decisions about A-F school grades a total of 21 times.

There's a good reason for that, said Charles Tack, a spokesman for the Arizona education department: Superintendent Diane Douglas and other officials don't want to pre-empt separate deliberations by the state board.

"We see ESSA as having the broad, overarching guidelines for what an A-F system looks like. And then we want to build on that," Tack said.

He added that when it comes to the kind of shift in accountability the Arizona department expects as a result of ESSA and the state's own desires, "I really think you're going to see a lot of changes. We wanted to get something on paper based on the feedback we already received."

One approach the department plans to use, thanks in part to ESSA: consolidating and better coordinating how the state monitors and supports schools, according to Tack. The state's old ways of tracking and providing assistance to schools was in many ways a burden for schools, and the department now wants to make the process "a lot more painless."

'Back and Forth'

In some respects, South Carolina has a good idea of where it wants to take accountability under ESSA. For one thing, in 2015, the state adopted academic standards as an official replacement for the Common Core State Standards, along with a new set of assessments.

And South Carolina is looking forward to having one unified accountability system, instead of having one for a waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act—ESSA's predecessor—and another for state purposes, said Roy Stehle, the director of the office of federal and state accountability for the state education department.

Other pieces of the puzzle are still being sorted out. The South Carolina department has already said it will take a big new investment in data collection and reporting (on the order of $1 million) to track students' "readiness" at various levels of K-12. As one consequence, Stehle said, access to advanced coursework is a top candidate for the state's new indicator of school quality and student success.

That's because it's simply easier at this point to publish and disaggregate data on such access, he said. But that decision isn't final.

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"It's very hard to pick one [indicator]out. And that's ... what the stakeholder groups that we've been working with have kind of indicated," Stehle said. He noted that the department is consulting with everyone from teachers to state lawmakers and an education oversight committee (a state-level group separate from the South Carolina board of education) to craft the system.

And then there's the single, summative rating for schools. Stehle noted that South Carolina recently stopped using an A-F system for schools at least in part because it was "not well-received." Now the state is grappling with how to balance distaste for that particular system with calls for a single school score that the proposed ESSA rules require.

"The educators would like to see a dashboard approach. But the overall [sentiment] from the larger stakeholder community is that the state wants to a see a rating," said Stehle. "In the end, we'll probably have a rating system."

Vol. 36, Issue 05, Pages 12, 15

Published in Print: September 21, 2016, as Flashpoints Emerge as States Step Up Work on ESSA Plans
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