States Gird for Shifting Role on Accountability

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If the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is renewed in the next several months, the final version is likely to give a lot more running room to states when it comes to crafting their school accountability systems.

So are states ready for a rollback in federal oversight? What shape will their accountability systems take? And how will they ensure continued progress on the part of the traditionally low-performing subgroups of students that the No Child Left Behind Act—the current version of the ESEA—was designed to help?

Those questions are paramount as top education lawmakers on both sides of the U.S. Capitol—Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.—strive to put the finishing touches on compromise legislation to renew the ESEA law.

Accountability is said to be a major issue behind the scenes in those negotiations, with both chambers having passed their own versions of the reauthorization.

But no matter what happens with the ESEA, states aren't likely to go in a radically different direction on accountability, the Council of Chief State School Officers says in a report released last week.

Thanks in part to the Obama administration's waivers from many of the mandates of the NCLB law, states already have taken greater control of how they measure student performance, rate schools, and intervene in schools that aren't making progress, said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the CCSSO.

States "now own their accountability systems. In No Child Left Behind times, it was sort of a passive [acceptance] of what's going on at the federal level," Minnich said at an event in Washington at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. The CAP event coincided with the release of the CCSSO report on accountability.

Even before waivers were offered, the CCSSO explained in its report, more than 40 states signed on to some general principles of accountability systems, including identifying achievement gaps and working to close them; providing timely information on outcomes to educators; giving failing schools extra attention and support; and allowing systems to evolve and grow over time.

State Commitment

Over the past several years, Minnich said at the CAP event, states have begun thinking more about how they can fix and support schools—not just label them.

Carey Wright, Mississippi's state chief, agreed, saying her state isn't likely to back off its school turnaround efforts.

"Behind every data point is a face. ... I can't imagine looking at data and then saying 'OK,' and moving on," Wright said. "We've got to take action."

For instance, she said, the Magnolia State is considering what turnaround strategies work best for rural schools.

The CCSSO report highlighted other state action already in play around richer accountability, closing the achievement gap, or school turnarounds.

For instance, New Mexico has cooked up an accountability system that considers factors beyond just test scores and graduation rates, including participation in college-entrance exams and dual-credit coursework.

And Minnesota provides its districts with individual reports showing how close they are to the statewide goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.

States are committed to those activities, the report said. They won't drop them just because a new ESEA might replace the waivers.

Subgroup Quandary

But there are some concerns that students who have traditionally been overlooked—so-called "subgroup students," such as students in special education, English-language learners, and black and Hispanic students—haven't been a priority under the administration's waivers.

Those waivers ask states to take dramatic action in the 5 percent of schools that are performing the worst overall, plus another 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps or other problems.

The trouble is that many subgroup students aren't in those kinds of schools, said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy for the Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority students.

The vast majority of students of color "are in schools that are doing OK overall, but not for those groups of kids," Hall said at the CAP panel. Schools shouldn't be able to earn the highest rating on state accountability systems, she said, if subgroup students aren't making good progress—as some have been able to under waivers.

"It can't be, 'Oh you got an A, but you're missing goals for your black kids,' " she said.

Turnaround Issue

Carmel Martin, who helped develop and implement the waivers as a top aide at the U.S. Department of Education, said the idea of a bottom 5 percent was to give state education agencies a manageable number of schools to concentrate their most dramatic efforts on.

But she agreed that it's also important to consider subgroup performance. Martin, who is now CAP's executive vice president for policy, pointed to the organization's analysis, released in late October, of Education Department data.

'Firmly Committed'

CAP found that in 42 states, the gap between Hispanic and white students was bigger in top-performing schools than in struggling ones. In 39 states, the gap between black and white students was also greater in otherwise successful schools than in schools that are foundering.

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There's also a chance that an ESEA renewal doesn't pass during the next few months. In that case, it may be up to the next president to reimagine the federal role on accountability, perhaps through his or her own set of waivers.

If that happens, states will roll with it, but they are sticking by their principles, the CCSSO said in its report.

"State chiefs will continue to lead and remain firmly committed to strong accountability aligned to the principles," the report says.

Vol. 35, Issue 12, Pages 17, 19

Published in Print: November 11, 2015, as States Prepare for Shifting Role on Accountability
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