Florida, California Revamp ESSA Plans in Quest for Federal OK

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may have approved Every Student Succeeds Act plans for 37 states, but two of the biggest—Florida and California—are still angling for their federal blessing.

DeVos has singled out school-choice-friendly Florida as a model for the rest of the country. But the department had a number of concerns about the state's initial ESSA plan. Florida resubmitted a revised version to the feds on April 20.

The Sunshine State's original plan tried to stick as close as possible to the A through F grading system that Florida had in place under its No Child Left Behind Act waiver.

That meant Florida didn't want to rate schools on how well they help English-language learners achieve proficiency—an ESSA must. And the state wanted to continue to use a combined "super subgroup" that considers the lowest-performing 25 percent of students in a school (no matter what their race, income, or disability status) rather then look at results for English-learners, students in special education, and racial minorities separately.

That flew in the face of ESSA's requirement to take subgroup performance into account in identifying struggling schools.

See Also: Approved ESSA Plans: Explainer and Key Takeaways From Each State

To address these issues, the state has come up with a federal index that will be separate from its A-F school grading system. That index will take English-language proficiency into account, and will be used—in addition to the school grading system—to flag struggling schools. And Florida has also added language to its plan saying it will consider individual subgroup performance, not just overall school grades, in identifying schools for "targeted support" under the law.

Advocates Wary

The changes may satisfy the department. But civil rights advocates wish Florida had done more to make it clear that the performance of subgroups of students matters.

"I think it's a shame that they didn't go further and include ELLs in their A through F system, which is what parents are familiar with," said Lorén Trull, a senior education policy adviser with UnidosUS, the civil rights group formerly known as the National Council of La Raza.

Trull has briefly reviewed Florida's revised plan. And she's worried that Florida is now moving towards a bifurcated system, where schools are held accountable by one set of standards for the state and another set for the federal government.

"We want accountability systems that are aligned," Trull said. "Not where in one system they say a school is doing well and in another, they say they are not. Parents and teachers don't know what that means."

What's more, ESSA requires states to identify languages other than English that are present to a "significant extent" in the student population and to make every effort to create native language exams for new arrivals. Florida, though, has a state law that makes English the state's official language. The state initially declined to name any other popular language, despite its sizable Spanish-speaking population.

Florida's revised plan does define which languages are "present to a significant extent" under ESSA. Only one meets the proposed definition: Spanish. That means the state could end up meeting the letter of the law.

But it is unclear if Florida will actually end up creating tests in Spanish, said Anne Hyslop, a former Obama administration official who reviewed Florida's plan for Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success. The state could say that it made "every effort" to offer such tests, but was hamstrung by its state law.

"It's a symbolic thing. Substantively, will Florida do anything different with regard to native-language assessments? Probably not," said Hyslop.

California's Revised Pitch

Meanwhile, California last month submitted a revised ESSA plan that meets the federal demand to flag schools in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state.

That requirement—an ESSA must—doesn't jibe well with California's own school rating system, which relies on a color-based dashboard that uses specific criteria to identify the lowest-performing schools and districts.

What's more, California's own accountability system focuses on school districts, whereas ESSA requires states to identify individual schools as low-performing. California also intervenes in districts that are performing below a certain level. The state doesn't seek to identify a particular percentage of schools as struggling. And some members of California's state board of education were uncomfortable with the federal approach.

Related Blog

Ultimately though, to meet the federal requirement, California opted to flag as low-performing those schools that were doing either very poorly or poorly on half or more of the indicators measured by the dashboard, according to David Sapp, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the California state board of education. That may end up capturing 6 or 8 percent of schools, he said, as opposed to just 5 percent. But it is closer in line with the state's own system, Sapp said.

California also tweaked its plan to measure a school or district's improvement or decline over time in a way that was more consistent with ESSA. And the state made changes to the way 11th grade tests figure into school ratings, also at the Education Department's behest.

In addition, the state revamped its definition of English-language proficiency to better match the federal requirements. But California is seeking a waiver to go back to its own definition, which takes into account whether English-language learners have been "reclassified" as proficient in English.

Vol. 37, Issue 29, Page 15

Published in Print: May 2, 2018, as Florida, California Revamp ESSA Plans in Quest for Federal OK
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