ESSA Plans: Takeaways From the First Batch of Approvals

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team have been approving state plans for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act at a fast and furious pace: They've announced approvals for 13 states and the District of Columbia over the past few weeks. And dozens of new applications were expected to pour into the agency this week.

So far, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont have gotten the green light. Massachusetts was awaiting its approval as of last week. Colorado got feedback from the Education Department and then asked for more time to submit its revised plan.

And Michigan remained the biggest cliffhanger as of late last week. The department originally told the state its plan had huge holes and might not be ready for review.

Among the big takeaways from the first round of ESSA approvals were:

1. The department's feedback on plans may not be as influential as would be expected.

The agency flagged certain issues with state plans. But by and large, states didn't make big revisions in those areas—and won approval anyway.

For instance, Connecticut and Vermont got their way on measuring student achievement. Both states will be able to use so-called "scale scores." Those help capture student progress as opposed to straight up proficiency rates, which is what many people—including, at least initially, the department—said ESSA requires. Connecticut, in particular, did not stand down on this issue, telling the department that "Webster's Dictionary defines proficiency not only as a state of being proficient, but also as an advancement in knowledge or skill."

Tennessee will still be able to use so-called "supersubgroups," which combine different historically overlooked groups of students, such as racial and ethnic minorities, English-language learners, and students in special education, for accountability purposes. That will be allowed despite the fact that the department said it was a no-no in its initial feedback to the state.

In its revised plan, Tennessee promised to use both combined and broken-out subgroups in identifying schools for "targeted improvement" under the law. And the state provided some data to explain its reasoning behind having a combined black, Hispanic, and Native American subgroup. Tennessee argued that more schools would actually be identified as needing help using the supersubgroup approach than would be otherwise. That appeared to persuade DeVos and her team, which gave Tennessee's plan the thumbs-up late last month.

ESSA for the first time calls for states to factor into their accountability systems whether English-language learners are making progress in mastering the language. It's supposed to be a separate component in the accountability system. But Connecticut incorporates English-language proficiency into the academic-growth part of its plan. The department told the Nutmeg State to change that. Connecticut instead provided more information to explain its thinking, and that seemed to work for the agency.

2. States worked the hardest to fix their plans in the areas in which the department pushed the most.

Delaware, Louisiana, and other states changed the way science factored into accountability, moving it to a different part of their system, at the behest of the Education Department. That was an issue the department clearly thought was important: It got flagged in numerous plans.

3. Some state plans may not be as ambitious as some ESSA experts would have hoped.

Arizona got the go-ahead to give lower weight to the reading and math scores of students who have only been at a particular school for a short amount of time. Some experts worry that this change could diminish the importance of children from transient populations—including poor and minority students.

North Dakota was told it needed to make sure that academic factors—such as test scores and graduation rates—carried "much greater weight" than other factors, say, student engagement and college and career readiness. As a result, North Dakota upped the percentage from 48 percent for academic factors to 51 percent, according to an analysis by Chad Aldeman, a principal at the consulting group Bellwether Education Partners, who reviewed select plans. That may not be what Congress had in mind when it used the words "much greater" weight, he said.

The department also asked North Dakota to be more specific about how it would decide which schools fall below the 67 percent graduation rate that triggers whole-school interventions. The state decided to go with schools where the six-year graduation rate falls below that threshold. That wouldn't have flown under the Obama administration's regulations for the law, which Congress nixed.

4. Some elements in plans are still to be determined, even though the plans themselves are approved.

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Illinois is planning to use a mix of school quality indicators, including school climate and chronic absenteeism. But the state is also hoping to add another unspecified measure aimed at elementary and middle schools, as well as a fine arts measure. The Land of Lincoln still has to figure out the details of those indicators.

And states haven't yet had to provide lists of which schools will be flagged as needing extra help. Also, most plans don't go into detail about what kinds of strategies states and districts use to fix low-performing schools. The lists of schools pinpointed for improvement won't be released until after the 2017-18 school year.

What's next: It's worth watching to see if the department will be as extensive in its feedback—or as flexible—when the remaining 34 states turn in their plans.

Vol. 37, Issue 05, Page 20

Published in Print: September 20, 2017, as Approved ESSA Plans: 4 Takeaways
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