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Many State ESSA Plans Minimize Performance of Vulnerable Students, Report Finds

By Alyson Klein — September 24, 2018 4 min read
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Many state accountability plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act don’t do a great job of incorporating the performance of vulnerable subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, English-learners, and those with disabilities, according to an analysis released by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.

And many states are skirting ESSA’s requirements when it comes to identifying low-performing schools, and those where subgroups of students are struggling, the Alliance found. (The Alliance is lead by former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat.)

“Nationally, the results of giving states more flexibility to hold schools accountable for the performance of historically underserved students are mixed,” said Anne Hyslop, the assistant director, policy development & government relations, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. “Some states place subgroups of students front and center, while others make it difficult to understand how those students are progressing. All states examine subgroups of students to identify schools for targeted support, but the performance of these students often plays little, if any, role in overall school ratings and can be portrayed in confusing and unhelpful ways to parents and the public.”

The analysis considered every state plan, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It considered both how states incorporate subgroup performance into school ratings and how they flag low-performing schools where subgroups of students are struggling.

Subgroups in School Ratings

The Alliance found that just 17 states factor the performance of subgroups of students into all school ratings, or might lower a school’s overall rating because of poor subgroup performance. The Alliance, which used a color-coded system for this report, gave those states a “green rating” in that area.

But 12 states received a “red” rating, because their school ratings don’t factor in subgroup performance at all—a policy the Alliance argues is inconsistent with the letter, and spirit, of the law.

Another eight states either don’t include all the subgroups identified under ESSA in their ratings (those are English-language learners, students in special education, disadvantaged students, and racial minorities), or they give two ratings, one for the school as a whole, and the other taking subgroup performance into consideration. Those states got a “yellow” rating from the Alliance. Most of these states combine subgroups together for accountability purposes by examining a “high-needs” group of only low-income students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities or a “low-performing” group of students. But these “super-subgroups” don’t consider all of the subgroups of students required to be included by ESSA, the report found.

Another 15 states received a “yellow stripe” rating, indicating they are at risk for masking subgroup performance, either because they aren’t giving overall ratings for schools or don’t publicize the school ratings or scores that are based on subgroup performance and that the state will use to identify schools, according to the report.

Schools Where Subgroups Are Struggling

What’s more, the report says, the majority of ESSA plans don’t provide a clear definition of which schools have subgroups of students that are “consistently underperforming.” Those schools are supposed to receive what the law calls “targeted” support, meaning the school comes up with a plan to fix the problem, monitored by the district.

In fact, 16 states have the same or almost the same definition for schools in need of “targeted support” and those in need of “additional targeted support.’” Schools are supposed to be identified for “additional targeted support” if a single subgroup (like, say English-learners) is performing as badly as the students in the worst schools in the state. Those states got a red rating from the Alliance for this area.

Another 30 states had different definitions for these two categories, but only required districts and schools to intervene if a school wasn’t making progress across all of the areas ESSA requires states to measure, including reading and math test scores, graduation rates, English-language proficiency, and other indicators (such as chronic absenteeism).

Just six states expect action if a subgroup isn’t performing well on certain indicators. They received a green rating for that issue.

Only three states—Colorado, Georgia, and Nevada—received green ratings in both areas considered by the Alliance. Six states—Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, and North Carolina—received a red rating for both issues considered by the Alliance.

The report comes just before the Senate education committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on implementation of ESSA featuring state chiefs from Delaware, Nebraska, and South Carolina. No one from the U.S. Department of Education is slated to appear.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the panel, and her House counterpart, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., have said that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has approved ESSA plans that don’t comply with the law, in part because of the two issues flagged in the Alliance’s report. DeVos’ team says that’s not the case. More on that debate here.

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information:

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