State K-12 Leaders Cautious in Assessing Draft ESSA Rules

Accountability plans wait for post-election

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Though the Obama administration got to propose—and will get to finalize—the regulations on accountability for the Every Student Succeeds Act, it will be up to the next administration to approve state plans and hold states to their promises.

The uncertainty about who in Washington will take the baton and how they'll handle it, along with the extent to which schools' performance during the 2016-17 academic year will play into accountability under ESSA, are among the major concerns expressed by state K-12 leaders as they continue to study the newly released draft regulations.

To take one such knotty example, states are still teasing out how they want to handle the requirement in the proposed rules for a single, "summative" rating for each school, such as an A-F grade or numerical score.

Overall, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said his group was "really pleased with what the department has done" on the proposed regulations.

But many state schools chiefs themselves have said they're still reviewing the proposed rules, and were still unwilling to comment publicly about specifics in the ESSA accountability regulations that the U.S. Department of Education published for comment at the end of last month.

States probably won't wait until the regulations are final—likely in the fall—before they begin drafting their plans for submission to the department. But it's unclear whether they will assume the Obama administration's word is set in stone, said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that promotes policy flexibility for states and districts.

According to the proposed regulations, states' accountability plans are due either in March 2017 when the next administration's Education Department will barely be up and running, or July 2017, when the 2017-18 school year (the first full year of ESSA) will be just a month away.

And that timeline could be disrupted if presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wins the November election and shelves the proposed rules from President Barack Obama's Education Department, Petrilli added.

"I think if states really want to do something that they believe in and is within the letter of the law, but violates the new regs, they would go ahead and make their case to the new administration," he said.

But few states might feel the need to go to such lengths—that's because the proposed rules actually offer a great deal of flexibility for states, said Liz King, the education policy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: "As a general matter, the department bent over backwards to provide options."

Ratings and Data

The draft regulations call for states to come up with one single rating for a school. But not every state wants to go in that direction.

For instance, Stephen L. Pruitt, the commissioner of education in Kentucky, doesn't think that a single summative score gives parents a full picture of a school's performance.

"I think it sort of masks things that do create a better educational environment for kids," Pruitt said. "I think it's better for a parent to be able to look at a set of indicators" and be able to see that a school with, say, an achievement gap has recently expanded its course offerings.

"You wouldn't get that [nuance] if you just scored 78," he said.

And in other states, there may be interest in making sure those ratings come with plenty of context.

For instance, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said her state is mulling over the idea of using a performance index of, for example, 300 points for that comprehensive school rating; reporting the average score for schools in the state; and then reporting how far above or below that average a particular school's final score is. In that way, Atkinson said, there would a rating for each school, but the emphasis, when her state reports the rating, would be on a school's relative performance.

Atkinson did say she likes the provision of the proposed ESSA rules to require at least three scoring levels—and not just scores of the pass-fail variety—for reporting various elements of school performance.

"The more we can move away from all-or-nothing, the better the transparency," Atkinson said.

But Minnich, of the state chiefs' council, expressed concern about how schools' performance from the upcoming school year could affect accountability.

Although the Every Student Succeeds Act takes full effect in 2017-18, the proposed rules would require that 2016-17 school data be used to identify for school improvement, under ESSA, the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools, high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students, and Title I schools with "consistently underperforming" groups of students that have not improved after previous interventions.

That might make it tricky for schools this next year, because although their 2016-17 performance could count for school improvement purposes, they won't be sure exactly how, since their states' ESSA plans are not yet final.

"We really do believe that the 2017-18 school year is the first year that we should use the data," Minnich said.

Opt-Out Options

Not everyone thinks the proposed rules are workable—or within the scope of the law.

The draft rules specify states' options for dealing with test-participation rates lower than 95 percent—even if state law allows for parent opt-outs. States must lower the school's overall score, give the school the lowest possible rating for academic achievement, flag the school for extra support, or submit their own plan to the federal department for consideration.

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But Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and an activist sympathetic to the testing opt-out movement, thinks the Education Department is taking ESSA too far.

The proposed regulation, she said, "really does seem to give more enforcement power to the federal government than we thought the law would allow."

But Minnich said he thought the Education Department threaded the needle well on the issue.

"We've got to make sure we're talking about the value of these assessments," Minnich said.

Vol. 35, Issue 34, Pages 20, 24

Published in Print: June 8, 2016, as State K-12 Leaders Cautious in Assessing Draft ESSA Rules
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