Ed. Dept. Steps Up Pace of States' ESSA Plan Reviews

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After a rocky start in which U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ team was criticized for being too heavy-handed, confusing, or inconsistent in responding to states’ plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act, approvals of state plans are now coming at a fast clip.

Six states—Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, and New Mexico—had received the all-clear on their plans as of mid-August.

In addition, all the other states that have turned in plans—including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont—and the District of Columbia have received some sort of formal critique from the department. The remaining 34 states are expected to submit their plans next month.

Even though DeVos and her team are taking a close look at each plan, it’s not clear just how much of a role the federal feedback is having in shaping states’ final products. For instance, the Education Department dinged Tennessee for using so-called “supersubgroups,” which combine different historically overlooked groups of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education, for accountability purposes.

But the Volunteer State, which revised its plan based on the department’s feedback, decided to stick with its original vision. The state provided some data to explain its reasoning behind having a combined black, Hispanic, and Native American subgroup, showing that more schools will actually be identified as needing help using the supersubgroup approach than would be otherwise.

Refusing to Budge

And some states are getting their plans approved even if they don’t take the federal feedback to heart.

For instance, Connecticut was told it could not use so-called average scale scores, which convert student grades to a comparable scale, say 1 to 100, to measure student achievement. But, in submitting a revised plan to the department, the Nutmeg State refused to make the change, arguing that scale scores are “just another way to express grade-level proficiency.” The state’s plan was approved despite its refusal to budge on the issue.

So far, there’s only one state that looks like it may have a tough time making it over the approval finish line: DeVos’ home state of Michigan. The department told Michigan’s state chief, Brian Whiston, the information it provided “was insufficient” to “adequately review” the section of the plan dealing with the state’s accountability system, arguably the heart of ESSA.


Where Do States' Plans Stand?

The Every Student Succeeds Act is set to be fully in place this school year. But before a state can roll out its plan, the U.S. Department of Education needs to sign off. Where does your state's plan stand in the process?

For a complete breakdown of what states and the District of Columbia plan to do with their new flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act, view our complete breakdown.


Missing Information

That could be partly because in the state’s application, filed this spring, Michigan offers three possible approaches on accountability. (Michigan has since settled on one of them, a “dashboard,” Whiston said.) There is also a host of missing information, including how the state will identify low-performing schools and what it will take for a school to no longer be considered low-performing.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, both Republicans, have each expressed concerns with the state’s plan. And outside experts who have reviewed ESSA plans consider Michigan’s one of the weakest of the 17 that have been filed so far.

Whiston, who was appointed to his position in 2015 by a state board with a Democratic majority, still anticipates the plan will get the green light.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. “We’ll get the little stuff back to them in a matter of a couple days.”

Brian Gutman, the director of public engagement for Education Trust Midwest, an advocacy organization that looks out for disadvantaged students, had an entirely different take on the federal response. He doesn’t think the department should approve the state’s plan in its current form.

“This is yet another person who is saying this plan is just simply inadequate for Michigan students,” Gutman said. “There seems to be a real disconnect between what we’re hearing from the U.S. Department of Education and what the Michigan department of education seems to be taking from that.”

Transparency Concerns

Meanwhile, the department revamped its strategy for reviewing ESSA plans after getting pushback for going overboard on its feedback to Delaware. The department questioned the ambitiousness of that state’s academic goals and whether it could use Advanced Placement tests and dual enrollment to gauge college readiness. Delaware was approved anyway.

But as of late July, instead of sending a letter outlining where a state’s plan falls short, the department intends to first schedule two-hour phone calls with states to go over trouble spots. If the state explains a potential hiccup to the federal agency’s satisfaction, the department might not mention that issue in its official feedback letter, to be made public after the call.

Related Blog

The change has raised big questions about transparency, including from two key Democratic ESSA authors, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia.

In a letter last month to DeVos, the pair wrote that the change would “limit the public’s knowledge” about ESSA-related agreements between states and the department.

“We are deeply concerned that this decision will result in inconsistent treatment of state agencies, leading to flawed implementation of our nation’s education law and harm to our nation’s most vulnerable students,” Murray and Scott wrote. The Education Department hasn’t responded to inquiries about the Murray-Scott letter, and it’s unclear if their concerns will have any impact on the agency’s approach.

Vol. 37, Issue 01, Page 22

Published in Print: August 23, 2017, as Ed. Dept. Steps Up Pace of State ESSA Plan Reviews
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Clarification: This story has been updated to better reflect statements made by Brian Gutman, the director of public engagement for Education Trust Midwest.

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