State's Plan for Transient Students Under ESSA Raises Eyebrows

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Anyone who has worked in high-poverty schools knows that low-income students are more likely than their wealthier peers to switch schools several times during their academic careers.

That's why civil rights advocates are worried about the way Arizona's plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act handles transient students.

The state's plan, which has already gotten approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, attaches different weights to student-test scores depending on how long a student has been at a particular school.

For instance, an 8th grader who has been enrolled at a middle school for three years would "count" more toward its overall grade than a 6th grader who had just gotten there. And an 8th grader who had been at the school for all three years would factor more heavily into the school's rating than a classmate who spent 6th and 7th grades elsewhere.

That means the performance of low-income and minority students may matter less in many schools, said Callie Kozlak, the field campaign manager for the Education Policy Project at UNIDOS US, a Latino advocacy organization. Such students are considered as likely to pull down a school's overall grade.

"This could potentially have a disparate impact on disadvantaged students who move during the school year due to extenuating circumstances," Kozlak said.

Credit, Blame

But Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the Arizona education department, said the system is intended to ensure that schools get the most credit—or blame—for the work they've done with students they've been educating for years, as opposed to those who just walked in the door.

"The rationale for using this approach is that schools are held accountable to the students who have been with them the longest, and therefore, should be performing better since they've been in a stable school," he said in an email. The education community in Arizona "is very excited about this way of calculating proficiency, since they believe it truly holds them accountable. The field recognizes it's not a perfect system, but they appreciate the model's intent."

So are school superintendents in Arizona excited about the change? Not really, according to their association president.

"There have been mixed feelings on that," said Mark Joraanstad, the executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association. Joraanstad's not sure the method makes a big difference, but "on the face of it," he said, "it seems to single out a mobile group [not] to be counted as fully, and we have a lot of mobile students."

Kozlak noted that the peer reviewers who examined Arizona's plan for the Education Department noticed the potential problem, too. The department even cited it in an official feedback letter, asking how the state planned to make sure all students were included in the accountability system. In response, Arizona provided more information but didn't appear to make substantial changes, Kozlak said. The plan was approved anyway.

Related Blog

One related issue: Kozlak is also concerned about the provision that allows schools to exclude from students' overall academic ratings the test scores of those who enrolled a few months into the year. "This seems like a potential way to exclude students from being counted, and this is a concern for civil rights groups," Kozlak said.

Predating ESSA

But Joraanstad said that's been a part of the state's accountability system for years—it isn't new to ESSA. And he's all for it.

He said it's unfair to ask schools to be held accountable for "a student they've had in the school for two months" just because those two months take place right before testing time. That's partly because some of the state's courses, such as math, build throughout the year. A teacher shouldn't have to catch up a student who is brand-new to a class in just a few weeks before testing time starts, he said.

Vol. 37, Issue 11, Page 14

Published in Print: November 1, 2017, as State's Plan for Transient Students Under ESSA Raises Concerns
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