Treatment of Vulnerable Students Proves a Political Flashpoint in State ESSA Plans
The Every Student Succeeds Act has maintained a core element of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, by requiring states to publicize the performance of students of color, children from low-income backgrounds, and others from important demographic groups, not just the overall student population. And although the 2015 law grants states and districts new flexibility in several essential ways, ESSA still requires states to connect the performance of key subgroups to decisions about schools.
But what exactly that means, and how states are interpreting it in their plans for the law, has proved to be one of the most divisive parts of ESSA, even as states begin reporting that sensitive data from the 2017-18 school year.
On the political front, the issue has evolved into one of the main strategies for congressional Democrats and others to attack U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The crux of their argument: the connection between subgroup performance and how schools are rated, as well as which schools are targeted for specific improvement strategies.
States say they've taken advantage of the flexibility they've been given in ESSA while also ensuring that all students are given the attention they deserve, said Kirsten Carr, the senior program director for student expectations at the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"This is a learning process, and as we go through it, state leaders are committed to continuous improvement," Carr said.
But critics of states' approaches argue that parents and the public will get a false impression that some schools are doing well and don't need interventions, even though some groups of students are lagging behind.
"Now that we're getting into implementation and seeing what the plans had produced, [Democrats] are feeling disappointed that, perhaps, what they thought was in the bill isn't actually what they got, at least as far as how this administration is interpreting what the law requires," said Anne Hyslop, an independent education consultant who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration.
In an analysis of state ESSA plans, the civil rights advocacy group The Education Trust said DeVos' agency has not held states accountable for failing to protect many students from falling through the cracks, stating, "We cannot depend on the federal government to protect or advance the rights of students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities."
How Schools Are Judged
So far, DeVos has approved plans from at least 37 states, as well as from the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In a speech to the CCSSO, DeVos ripped into states for—generally speaking—opting to merely comply with the law and not demonstrate how they planned to innovate. But she's insisted publicly that the plans she's approved comply with the law and therefore merited getting the official blessing.
One main point of contention has been how subgroups figure into states' summative ratings for schools. Some states have chosen to implement and publish a text-based descriptor, index score, grade, or some kind of overall rating for schools, including Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, and Tennessee.
In a statement, the Education Department said that because ESSA does not explicitly require states to create systems that use a scale of stars or A-F grades to judge schools, "it does not violate ESSA for states to include one set of criteria rather than another" when states have set up those systems.
But the law does require states to put together a system of "annual meaningful differentiation" to distinguish how different schools are performing on state exams, graduation rates, and other indicators. Democrats in Congress and others are saying that states' A-F and other ratings systems represent that requirement to differentiate schools. Therefore, they've argued, those systems must comply with the law's requirement that they break out subgroups' performance and factor them into ratings.
"Your failure to implement this requirement will result in an incomplete picture of school performance that leaves communities of color, low-income parents, parents of students with disabilities, and parents of students who are English-learners in the dark," three Democratic caucuses representing heavily black, Asian-American, and Hispanic House districts wrote to DeVos in March.
Passed Over for Help?
The other big disagreement is about how subgroup performance affects which schools are tagged as needing some kind of improvement strategy.
States are supposed to identify schools as needing "targeted support" when a student subgroup is "consistently underperforming." What does the latter term mean? That's been left up to states. They're also supposed to identify schools requiring "additional targeted support" when a subgroup is doing as poorly as the lowest-performing students in the state.
Given states' prerogative over which groups can be tagged as "consistently underperforming," some have decided to merge the definition of schools requiring more targeted support with how they define consistently underperforming subgroups. or provide very similar definitions for both. Jurisdictions that have taken this approach include the District of Columbia, New Mexico, and Washington state, Hyslop said.
Although she didn't single out specific states for criticism, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, raised concerns about how some approached the matter, saying in a hearing earlier this year that, "I believe in this law and I'm not going to stop raising these issues until the department resolves them."
However, the Education Department said that the law "provides no basis for the department to prohibit a state from selecting criteria (for consistently underperforming groups of students) that overlap with the criteria for additional targeted support."
The CCSSO's Carr says that just because a state doesn't conform to a narrow interpretation of what the law requires doesn't mean it isn't taking the issue seriously, while also complying with ESSA.
Oregon, for example, will identify a school for targeted support if at least one student subgroup meets the same criteria used for identifying a school for comprehensive support.
And Louisiana will use more than one definition for a school needing targeted support. Schools with subgroups performing at the same level as schools with F grades for two straight years, as well as schools with out-of-school suspension rates more than twice the national average, will receive the "urgent intervention required" designation. (The Pelican State will use A-F grades for overall school ratings, in keeping with its pre-ESSA accountability system.)
"Every state does account for subgroups in some way," Carr said. "Every state is clearly paying attention to that issue, and then will work with their districts to see how those schools can improve."
ESSA does not give the federal government a direct role in which school improvement strategies districts and states use.
Hyslop, the education consultant, said she is less concerned about how those subgroups play into school ratings than about how school improvement decisions might not account for struggling student subgroups that deserve attention.
"The practical impact of the second issue is larger than the practical impact of the first [issue]," she said.
Vol. 37, Issue 25, Pages 26-27Published in Print: April 4, 2018, as How States Treat the Most-Vulnerable Students Emerges as a Political Flashpoint Under ESSA