Weighing in on Accountability Under ESSA

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The U.S. Department of Education asked the education community for its collective thoughts on what school accountability should look like under the new Every Student Succeeds Act. And it got the answer—in droves. The agency received more than 20,000 comments on its proposed ESSA rules for accountability, which were released in May with a comment period that ended Aug. 1.

Some common themes emerged from educators, advocates, and members of the general public on the rules proposed for this central piece of the federal K-12 law’s newest version, which succeeded the No Child Left Behind Act. Among them:

  • Timelines: Numerous commenters protested the department’s proposed timeline for identifying schools for serious interventions, or what the law calls “comprehensive improvement.” The department wants states to pinpoint those schools, which include the bottom 5 percent of performers in any given state, at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, or the first year of full implementation.
    But organizations representing governors, state chiefs, teachers, and superintendents said that proposal doesn’t make sense, since it would require holding schools accountable for student outcomes from the 2016-17 school year, when new ESSA systems wouldn’t be in place yet. Two of ESSA’s architects—Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.—seconded those concerns.
  • School Ratings: Many comments centered on a new wrinkle in the department’s proposed regulations that would require states to come up with an overall rating for each school, rather than just telling parents and the public where they stand on a number of different factors, such as academic growth, or school safety.
  • Testing Opt-Outs: There was also plenty of pushback on the department’s approach to how states factor test participation into their accountability systems—a hot issue in the era of parent opt-outs. The department has called for states to take fairly serious steps, such as lowering a school’s overall rating if fewer than 95 percent of students take the mandatory state exams, automatically singling the school out for improvement, or something equally significant.
  • School Quality, Achievement Gaps: Commenters also debated whether schools that make progress on school quality indicators, such as safety, but not on academic indicators, such as test scores, should be able to shed a low-performing label. And others chimed in on how states should decide which groups of students, such as black, Hispanic, low-income are “consistently underperforming.”

The Education Department is now charged with combing through that mass of comments and taking them into consideration before releasing final rules, which are expected sometime this fall. Education Week reviewed the comments from a range of professional, advocacy, and other organizations, as well as the general public on proposed accountability rules under the Every Student Succeeds Act and compiled highlights.

Council of Chief State School Officers
The organization is already on record opposing a requirement that schools be identified for improvement based on data from the 2016-17 school year and reiterates that concern, asking for the Education Department to allow schools to first be identified for improvement in 2018-19, based on 2017-18 data. CCSSO also says that the requirement for a single rating for each school is a bad idea, saying that it would squash creative accountability efforts at the state level, such as a “dashboard” approach that displays performance on multiple indicators without requiring a final rating for each school. The state chiefs’ group also expresses several concerns about the reporting requirements for out-of-field and inexperienced teachers working with low-income students.

National Governors Association
Last year, the NGA gave ESSA its first full endorsement of any federal legislation in nearly two decades. But the governors’ group still has several concerns about the proposed accountability rules. The NGA wants to allow 2018-19 to be the first year schools are flagged for improvement. And it wants the new school quality and student success indicator to play a bigger potential role in judging school performance. The NGA says the U.S. secretary of education should not have the power to approve a state plan to address standardized test participation rates that dip below 95 percent. And the proposed rules’ requirement that schools with subgroups of students deemed underperforming for two straight years be identified as “consistently underperforming” improperly takes away the power of states to decide on the right timeline, the NGA says.

National Association of State Boards of Education
Executive Director Kris Amundson says the Education Department should not “displace” states’ decision-making about accountability ratings, and that means there should not be a requirement for an overall rating for each school. Like many organizations, the group wants data from the 2017-18 school year to be the first to identify struggling schools, not 2016-17. And NASBE wants a light federal touch when it comes to how states report test-participation numbers and the strategies they use to deal with low participation rates.

Council of the Great City Schools
In comments written by Michael Casserly, the executive director, the organization of big-city districts questions the department’s proposed implementation timeline. The council also questioned a provision calling for schools to be divided into three performance categories, arguing that could lead to overidentification of low-performing schools. The council also doesn’t want to see the department require states to come up with a statewide standard set of criteria for when English-language learners can “exit” ELL status, and raised concerns about setting a timeline for attaining English-language proficiency.

National Education Association
In a nutshell, the proposed accountability regulations are too close to the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, for the union’s taste. The NEA thinks the regulations don’t give states enough flexibility in setting academic goals and would add an onerous requirement that states make sure their new indicator of school quality or student success is grounded in research. The NEA also thinks the department would go too far when it comes to listing possible “punishments” for schools with high rates of parents opting their children out of standardized testing. And the union is miffed that the department is calling for schools with low-performing subgroups to face serious sanctions after three years. (ESSA calls for a “state determined” timeline.)

American Federation of Teachers
President Randi Weingarten took issue with the proposal that districts craft plans for low-performing schools to consider how many inexperienced, out-of-field teachers a school has, and how much money they spend per student. There are a lot of factors that could lead to poor performance, she argues, so why single out those two? Also, Weingarten thinks the department is overstepping its bounds in calling for states to define “ineffective teachers.” She’s worried states will keep relying on test scores to do this, as they have under NCLB waivers.

Learning Policy Institute
The education policy think tank run by Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor emeritus and researcher, says that states should not require that students’ academic performance be measured solely on grade-level proficiency. The group also says that would encourage schools to focus largely on students hovering around the threshold for proficiency, at the expense of low-performing students.

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
The NAACP’s education advocacy arm wants the department, in its final regulations, to “[p]rovide more instruction to states on how to define, measure, and advance positive school climates as an indicator of school quality and student success.” The regulations should also discourage states from using discipline practices to exclude students from annual testing, the group says. And it wants to encourage states to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, and those in the juvenile-justice system, as subgroups in their accountability systems.

Education Trust
CEO Kati Haycock said Education Trust, which advocates for robust accountability and reporting requirements, supports the requirement for a single school rating, and the greater weight academic indicators must have with respect to identifying schools in need of improvement. But the group also wants the final regulations changed to require that “consistently underperforming” subgroups of students be defined by their progress toward state goals, not by how they perform compared to the statewide student average. And it wants “more meaningful exit criteria” for states in determining which schools can leave “needs-improvement” lists.

Badass Teachers Association
Writing as a member of the union splinter group, which opposes high-stakes testing policies, Chris Willems says the group believes the proposed regulations focus too narrowly on English/language arts and math to the detriment of arts, music, and other subject areas. And the group is highly critical of the draft rules’ approach to testparticipation requirements.

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Writing on behalf of roughly 30 advocacy groups, the Leadership Conference wants the final ESSA regulations to “provide more direction on how states should assist local educational agencies with improving school environments for student learning.” The organization also wants more-robust regulations when it comes to making progress in “ensuring the promise of resource equity.” And the Leadership Conference stresses equity again when it comes to students’ access to “strong teachers.”

Vol. 36, Issue 01, Page 21

Published in Print: August 24, 2016, as Weighing in on ESSA
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