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DeVos’ Team Tells N.Y., Florida, Other States They Have Work to Do on ESSA

By Alyson Klein — December 20, 2017 7 min read
The exterior of the Department of Education Building in Washington, DC on Thursday, December 14, 2017.
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Ten more states—Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia— have some work to do on their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The most noteworthy letter is probably Florida’s. The Sunshine State was initially going to request a waiver from the Every Student Succeeds Act’s requirements to identify schools with significant achievement gaps between student subgroups; include English-language learners’ proficiency scores in the state’s accountability system; and provide some students the state assessment in their native language. Instead, the state wound up incorporating what would have been in its waiver request in its ESSA plan, to the chagrin of civil rights advocates.

And, judging from the feedback letter, it looks like the department thinks a lot of what Florida wants to do runs afoul of ESSA. Florida needs to include English-language proficiency in its accountability determinations, as ESSA requires, the feds say. The department also told Florida in bureaucratic-speak that it doesn’t have a choice, it must come up with a definition of at least the second most-common language in the state, other than English. That could be a precursor to asking Florida to make “every effort” to create assessments in that language, as required by ESSA’s assessment regulations. And it said Florida can’t combine different groups of students for accountability purposes. (This paragraph has been clarified from an earlier version, see below.)

In a nutshell, the feedback letter demands changes to Florida’s accountability plan that the state has been clear it doesn’t want to make. And that could put DeVos in a potentially tough spot. As secretary, she’s visited Florida more than any other state, which would seem to suggest her high regard for the state’s education stance, particularly on issues like school choice and accountability. And she’s hired a number of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s staffers, or people associated with him.

So what problems did the department find in the rest of this latest round of states? Here’s a quick look at several states.

Click on the state’s name for a link to the feds’ letter.

Iowa: The Hawkeye State got hit for its use of so-called “scale scores,” which convert student grades to a comparable scale, say of 1 to 100. Other states, including Connecticut, got similar feedback in the first round, but ended up being able to use scale scores with minimal changes to their plans. Iowa is also allowing low-performing schools that make significant progress to no longer be considered in need of serious supports, even if those schools are still in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state. Iowa also needs to spell out how it makes sure disadvantaged students have access to their fair share of effective teachers.

Minnesota: The department wants the North Star State to better explain how it will decide when a school has made enough progress to move from the lowest rung of the accountability ladder, called “comprehensive support,” to the next lowest, called “targeted support.” And Minnesota needs to spell out how it will make sure that disadvantaged students have access to their fair of effective teachers, the letter says.

Mississippi: Mississippi needs to explain exactly how much English-language proficiency figures into a school’s overall grade under its accountability system, the department said. And the state needs to spell out what it means for a school to have subgroups of students that are “consistently underperforming” compared to their peers. It is also unclear how Mississippi plans to come up with “more rigorous interventions” for schools that fail to improve after several years of a turnaround plan.

Missouri: ESSA requires states to set goals for improvement in graduation rates that narrow the gap between students in special education, English-language learners, and their more advantaged peers. But Missouri’s graduation rate goal for students in special education doesn’t actually close gaps, the department found. And Missouri needs to make some changes to the way it identifies low-performing schools and those with big achievement gaps. The state also needs to spell out how it will make sure disadvantaged students have access to their fair share of effective teachers.

New York: The Empire State is planning to adjust its student achievement, graduation, and English-language proficiency goals every five years. This is OK with the feds, but they remind New York that it will have to officially submit an amendment to its plan each time it wants to rethink its goals. The department also has concerns about how New York’s plan to set an “n-size” of 40 for test participation could impact identification of low-performing schools. The state also needs to be more specific about how English-language proficiency will factor into school ratings. The state also must make changes to its methodology and timelines for identifying low-performing schools.

Ohio: The department flagged a number of issues in Ohio’s accountability system and its process for identifying low-performing schools. For instance, it is unclear that the state is considering English-language proficiency as a separate indicator as ESSA requires, since Ohio has incorporated it into a broader measure on closing achievement gaps. The state also needs to better explain how the gap-closing indicator fits into its overall system. And it needs to ensure that its timelines for flagging struggling schools comply with the law

Virginia: The department gave Virginia a long list of things to work on in: its n-size, its school quality indicators, its goals, its academic achievement indicator, and its plans for deciding when a school is no longer struggling and in need of extra supports. Virginia also needs to explain how much weight it is giving to each indicator in its accountability system, the letter says. And Virginia wants to exempt low-performing schools that reduce failure rates on academic achievement by at least 10 percent from being considered low-performing. (That’s similar to “safe harbor” under the No Child Left Behind Act.) But that doesn’t comply with ESSA, according to the feds. And Virginia needs to spell out how it will make sure that disadvantaged students have access to their fair of effective teachers.

Washington: The state needs to do a better job of explaining how it will calculate dual credit, which is part of its indicator of school quality and student success. And it needs to provide more details of how English-language proficiency will figure into its system. The state also needs to make sure it is flagging schools where a single subgroup’s poor performance is so bad that the school needs to come up with a plan to fix it.

West Virginia: West Virginia needs to better explain how much weight it is giving to different indicators in its accountability system, the feds say. It’s also unclear that the state is holding its schools accountable for English-language proficiency, an ESSA requirement. West Virginia also wants to use local tests as its second academic indicator for elementary and middle schools, which the department argues isn’t kosher under ESSA.

Do states need to take the department’s suggestions in order to win approval for their ESSA plans? That’s unclear. Some states in the first round of plan submissions States didn’t make major changes the department asked for and still got the federal stamp of approval. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., an ESSA architect has accused DeVos of approving plans that go outside the bounds of the law.

For those keeping score at home: So far, 10 other states that turned in plans this fall--Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming—have received feedback from the feds. Puerto Rico has also gotten a response on its plan. (Check out our summaries of their feedback here and here.)

Plus, 15 states and the District of Columbia, all of which submitted plans in the spring, have gotten the all-clear from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Colorado, which asked for extra time on its application, is the only spring state still waiting for approval.

Want more analysis of ESSA plans? Edweek has you covered here.

Clarification: This post has been updated to better reflect the department’s comments to Florida on tests in languages other than English.