States Rush to Retool Accountability Following ESSA Passage
ESSA Adds New Fuel to Push for Retooled Systems
After years of pent-up frustration among state officials over what they've considered to be a heavy and prescriptive federal role in education policy, some states are bolting to overhaul their accountability systems in ways that could have lasting impact on schools' priorities.
Sparked by new flexibility promised under the Every Student Succeeds Act, they're rushing ahead of the U.S. Department of Education, which is still in the initial phases of interpreting the new law and figuring out how it will regulate under it, a process that could take months. The law doesn't go into full effect until the 2017-18 school year.
Because of timing, political pressures, and unhappiness with existing school report cards, some states don't want to wait—setting up the prospect of conflicts down the road if retooled state systems don't meet what will be required in the way of ESSA-compliant accountability.
For example, California state school board members, who last week discussed ways to revamp their system, have indicated they won't come up with an overall ranking of their schools. Such a move would likely fly in the face of the ESSA requirement that states identify their worst-performing schools as a first step toward improving them. Local advocates are working to block the state's prospective changes.
While federal officials ponder the ground rules for school accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, some states already are deep into the process of overhauling their own systems.
Alaska: After the state put its accountability system on pause two summers ago for a variety of reasons, the state school board is crafting a new one, welcoming new flexibility to do so under ESSA. Ideas include measuring student engagement and students’ access to and completion of advanced courses. But the legislature has slashed the state education department’s budget and limited the type and amount of information the department can collect.
California: Two years ago, the state put on hold its decades-old Academic Performance Index system. The board plans to approve a new system by this fall, and it could include factors such as the student absentee rate and college- and career-readiness opportunities. But Gov. Jerry Brown and the state school board have indicated the changes won’t provide an index or ranking of schools. If that’s the only system California adopts, it would fly in the face of ESSA’s requirement that states identify the bottom 5 percent of schools.
Connecticut: A new system approved by the state board weighs 12 measures of school quality, including test scores, three ways of measuring graduation rates, post-graduation career preparedness, the percentage of chronically absent students, physical fitness, and access to the arts. While the state education department has already begun to rank schools, officials say minor changes may need to be made once the federal department gives additional ESSA guidance. The system is similar to the one the federal department approved with its waiver from No Child Left Behind in August last year.
Lawmakers in Arizona, Florida, and Kentucky have proposed legislation that appears to conflict with ESSA guidelines regarding school report cards and testing.
But Connecticut's state board of education this month approved an accountability system that includes factors such as students' physical fitness and three ways to measure graduation rates. State officials think it'll pass the muster of federal oversight.
At the same time, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and a key architect of ESSA, has urged states to chart their own path on K-12 policy.
"The federal government has defined power under this law," he said during a spine-stiffening pep talk at a National Governors Association meeting in February. "States have numerous and infinite power. We should adhere to the principles of federalism here."
The Education Department didn't return requests for comment last week on whether some of the looming state changes would conflict with ESSA requirements.
Pushing the Envelope
Rushing to craft new accountability systems could be hazardous, said Michael Hansen, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and the deputy director of the Brown Center for Education Policy, who has monitored the burst of activity.
"There's a bit of a risk staking a claim, pushing it through, and then having it potentially run afoul of the federal regulations," Hansen said. "It's ... a bit of a political calculation."
The changes being considered in some states appear to focus most intently on assessments and the improvement of low-performing schools, both of which were handled in what states considered an overly prescriptive manner under ESSA's predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Under ESSA, which was signed into law in December, graduation rates and student achievement on state tests will still dominate accountability systems, but states are allowed to incorporate several more factors into determining how well schools are performing. They also are given more flexibility in deciding how to intervene in their worst-performing schools.
The Education Department is in the process of coming up with the specific regulations to implement those provisions, however, the first of which may not be ready until later this year.
In the meantime, as state education agencies and legislators start to revamp state-level accountability systems, they're finding that it may be harder than it looks. In order to avoid the same pitfalls the federal department made with the NCLB law, state officials are working to build consensus, collect the right data, and intervene in the most appropriate way.
"This is critical because it's our check that says we've made good on the promises we've made to the kids and families in our state," said Connecticut schools Superintendent Dianna Wentzell.
At least eight states without waivers from provisions of the NCLB law have been itching to get out of the prescribed penalties for schools whose students fall short on standardized tests.
While the majority of states got waivers from the NCLB law, many politicians feel they were bullied by the federal department to adopt some measures and now want to retool.
And other states will likely have to make changes to their existing accountability systems simply because they don't meet all ESSA requirements. All states, for example, will have to figure out a way to incorporate English-language learners' proficiency rates into their accountability systems, something that wasn't required under the previous law.
In some cases, the process of rewriting accountability systems predated the passage of ESSA. Connecticut officials began meeting two years ago with teachers' unions, local superintendents, and parent groups in order to draft their application for their waiver from No Child Left Behind.
In light of Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy's charge to not require any more data collection than necessary, they weighed the implications of several different indicators in coming up with an accountability system.
Measuring discipline, the department decided, would give schools an incentive to underreport suspensions and expulsions.
And while officials wanted to incorporate students' civic engagement into their system, measuring student-participation rates in Advanced Placement civics or government courses or requiring community service didn't really get at the question of whether students were so engaged.
The accountability system they came up with—incorporating 12 data points to place schools in three separate categories—is one that state chief Wentzell said received accolades from the federal department last summer.
State board members spent the past few months making minor changes based on their interpretation of the ESSA law before voting in early March to put it in place permanently. To the best of their knowledge, it abides by the federal requirements, said Wentzell.
"We look forward to refining the system if necessary and will certainly do that in collaboration with the Department of Education," she said.
Like Connecticut, California state board members have spent the past two months figuring out how to mesh the accountability system they have created with new federal requirements.
The state for the past several years has clashed with the federal department over school accountability, leading to California being denied a waiver under the NCLB law.
While the state says several components of its accountability system match well with ESSA, such as identifying underserved student populations, it doesn't plan to provide an index or rank its schools. That's despite the fact that ESSA requires states to identify their bottom 5 percent of schools. Instead, California plans to provide parents with a list of how well schools are doing in particular areas.
Requiring states to give more weight to some factors over others implies that some factors are more important than others, said California state board President Michael Kirst.
"If you're smart enough to look at five things on the dashboard of a car and still drive, you should be able to understand a school," Kirst said. "For the people who say parents can't understand multiple measures, then these parents shouldn't be driving."
That's a sentiment that rankles Ryan Smith, the executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group that strongly supports incorporating data in accountability systems.
"When parents are driving cars, they really want to know, 'Where am I going?' " Smith said. "When you're not helping them get a good glimpse of how well a school is performing, it's less like driving a car and more like flying a plane. If they don't have the capability of doing that, they're going to crash."
Smith said he is pushing legislators to block the system. The state is modeling its new accountability system on its school funding formula, which distributes funds based on specific school performance factors.
Forging New Paths
There are other examples of states looking to strike out on their own.
For instance, while ESSA requires states to administer the same state exam in grades 3-8, Florida and Arizona are considering bills that would give schools the option of two exams.
And Kentucky lawmakers are debating a bill that would seem to conflict with several provisions of the law, including what the state's education department lists on school report cards, and which schools the state deems failures. It's a point Susan Perkins Weston of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky citizens' advocacy group, brought up on the group's blog.
For some states, ESSA leaves several questions unanswered.
In Alaska, the state education department last month began convening parents, teachers, administrators, and superintendents across the state to start designing an accountability system that would replace the Alaska School Performance Index—a system the state put on hold two years ago because of technical problems.
Already, questions of particular significance to Alaska are starting to arise: How do you break out subgroups of students without violating data-privacy laws when, for many schools, subgroups amount to no more than five students? How do you effectively intervene in isolated, one-room schoolhouses that dot the state, far from any paved roads?
And, most importantly, what data can a department that has been slashed back as a result of statewide budget cuts feasibly collect?
"We're hoping that the regulatory process fleshes the law out a little bit more," said Brian Laurent, the state department's data-management supervisor. "If there's something that the federal department feels strongly about, then they need to tell us. We are seeing this as our opportunity to have local stakeholder input and create a plan that works for us."
Vol. 35, Issue 24, Pages 1, 16Published in Print: March 16, 2016, as States Hit Accelerator on Accountability