ESSA Promised New Gauges of School Quality. Does It Deliver?

—Michael Glenwood
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Not everything about the Every Student Succeeds Act represents a break from precedent. But after the new federal K-12 law passed in 2015, one element sparked a lot of discussion and held the potential to plow new ground in federal education law: the requirement that states adopt a gauge of school performance that doesn't involve state test scores and graduation rates.

The "school quality and student success" element of ESSA accountability—also called the "fifth indicator" by some in the ESSA community because it supplements four other mandated yardsticks— gives states new flexibility to measure everything from dual enrollment (through which high schoolers can take college courses) to physical education.

In the months after the law passed, many observers and advocates discussed the possibility that policymakers might want to assess students on nontraditional factors like "grit" and character under the law.

Range of Approaches

So have a thousand flowers bloomed in this part of states' ESSA plans? Not necessarily.

A handful of indicators have been very popular among states when selecting a school quality and student-success piece for their new ESSA accountability systems. And within those popular items, states have chosen to define different terms in different ways.

More than 30 states have included chronic absenteeism, or some measure of attendance, in their accountability plans. And more than 35 have included some kind of "college-and-career readiness" indicator.

But those who hoped to see a highly diverse and innovative set of such indicators across states might be somewhat disappointed so far.

"We hoped that states would move toward more holistic accountability," said Samantha Batel, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center think tank, who has studied this indicator in some states' ESSA plans. "It probably didn't happen as much as we and others would like to see."

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had approved 37 state ESSA blueprints as of late March, as well as the District of Columbia's and Puerto Rico's. She has criticized what she says is the general lack of ambition and innovation in states' ESSA plans.

Batel said that despite states' ESSA plans not going as far as she had hoped in some cases, she was encouraged by examples from Louisiana and the District of Columbia, which she said are both devising indicators to measure students' access to a well-rounded education under ESSA.

Several states, Batel noted, also leaned on their previous waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act when developing plans for the fifth indicator.

Meanwhile, no state has chosen to measure social-emotional learning for school performance under ESSA, much to the relief of some researchers who think those kinds of factors shouldn't be a part of formal accountability systems. (At least one state, Vermont, did choose to measure students' physical fitness.)

However, some states have included measuring school climate as at least one portion of the indicator in their ESSA plans, including Illinois, Maryland, and Montana.

Other approaches to this portion of accountability include such features as measuring access to arts programs (Georgia and Kentucky) and science (Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Utah). In a statement about input from the community that his state received about ESSA, Georgia Superintendent Richards Woods said, "Georgians want a K-12 education system that supports the whole child, a system that produces students who are not just college- and career-ready, but ready for life."

The majority of states have elected to include more than one element of school performance as part of the indicator, although some, like Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin, have chosen to focus on a sole indicator; those three states each picked an attendance-based measure to tease out school quality and student success.

States are also selecting different measures depending which level of schooling is being assessed for ESSA accountability. That's particularly true for high school, where, in some respects, there are more options to measure school quality and student success.

In Massachusetts, for example, the index used for the school quality and student-success indicator includes achievement in 9th grade courses and completion of a challenging high school curriculum that could fold in courses from, say, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Life After High School

Perhaps the most popular choice for the school quality and student-success indicator is some form of college- and career-readiness.

But states chose to interpret that concept in different ways in their ESSA plans. And several examples show that states aren't excluding the use of any or all strictly academic performance, including when it comes to tests.

Delaware, in fact, got into a tussle with the Education Department about its proposal to use AP and IB exams to help the state measure college- and career-readiness in the indicator. Initially, federal officials were skeptical because they weren't sure students statewide would have access to those kinds of advanced courses. After a back-and-forth, however, DeVos' team approved the plan.

There's also a split—in part due to necessity—in how schools handle the indicators with elementary and middle schools. Idaho, for example, plans to use surveys to measure student satisfaction in elementary and middle school. For high schools, students can demonstrate preparedness for higher education or the workforce via advanced coursework, apprenticeships, or industry certifications.

'Manageable Data Point'

One major part of the challenge for states on this issue has been collecting the right—and enough—data. That's part of the reason why information about attendance likely proved attractive to many states. Unlike with other education policy issues that have gained prominence recently, such as social-emotional learning, schools, districts, and states already collect data on student attendance.

States' definitions of chronic absenteeism differ from each other in some respects. In their ESSA plans, many are close to using the threshold—promoted by the advocacy group Attendance Works—that a student should not miss more than 10 percent of a school year, or 18 days out of a school year that lasts 180 days.

And attendance data are already part of the information provided by schools as part of the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, Batel of the Center for American Progress noted. In addition, advocates say attendance is about as clear as it gets in often-opaque debates around education policy: Students who aren't in school can't learn.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. also pushed schools to focus on chronic absenteeism during his tenure, which covered roughly President Barack Obama's last year in office.

Focusing on student attendance, though, can pose problems. It doesn't highlight the quality of the education going on inside a school. And it's vulnerable to those who are tempted to massage the statistics and present a false picture to the public, Batel noted.

"It was a very manageable data point for states to use for accountability," Batel noted, although she added that, "just having chronic absenteeism [data] might not be enough, in the same sense that just test scores are not enough."

What the Future Holds

Just because an issue isn't included in the school quality and student-success indicator doesn't mean a state won't use it elsewhere in its ESSA blueprint.

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Batel noted that while out-of-school discipline rates aren't a part of the indicator in Louisiana, the state does plan to take those figures into account when making decisions about school improvement.

Despite the interest in this new dimension for accountability, observers and advocates should take a wait-and-see approach, said Brandon Wright, the editorial director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center think tank.

"I think it's good to encourage states to think about other ways to look at schools ... and encourage other types of outcomes than just achievement, academic growth, and graduation rate," Wright said. "Aside from being hopeful, I'm sort of withholding judgment on how important a component of the law this actually is."

Vol. 37, Issue 25, Pages 13-14

Published in Print: April 4, 2018, as In Quest for New Ways to Gauge School Quality, States-for Now-Opt for the Tried and True
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