When States and the Feds Take Different Paths on School Accountability

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A hallmark of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act was that states would get enough freedom to design one coherent set of priorities for their schools, finally putting an end to the politically divisive system that preceded ESSA, when thousands of schools answered to distinct federal and state accountability systems.

But, after months of failed negotiations with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, at least three states—Colorado, Florida, and Indiana—have not figured out a way to harmonize their state's priorities with ESSA's, and so their schools next year will be ranked twice over: once for federal accountability purposes, and once for their state's.

For districts and schools in those states, that means two different messages to parents and teachers about how schools stack up against their peers, and two separate messages about where they should place their time, money, and efforts.

If principals and superintendents in those states ultimately decide to pay more attention to their state's accountability system—as they may be tempted to do since states provide the bulk of education dollars—it will limit the potency of ESSA, which was designed to boost the outcomes of America's growing number of poor and historically disadvantaged students, civil rights activists say.

Tough Fit

Most states have managed to merge their state accountability systems with federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act. But at least three have indicated that their state laws don’t comply with the federal law and that districts and schools will receive two separate ratings next school year.

Indiana

  • Will provide two separate grades to each school and district, one for the federal system and one for the state system.
  • Will weigh student tests scores more heavily than its federally approved ESSA accountability plan does.
  • Defines high school diplomas differently than its ESSA plan does.

Florida

  • Will have a letter grade for each of its schools and a “federal index” for its federal accountability system.
  • Does not include English-language-proficiency exam scores as ESSA requires. A separate “federal index” will provide grades that factor in English-language-proficiency scores.

Colorado

  • Will identify two separate sets of schools in need of support.
  • Doesn’t count the scores of students who opt out of the state test. As part of its ESSA accountability system, the state will lower the score of schools that don’t have more than 95 percent of their students participate in the state exam.
  • Doesn’t factor in chronic absenteeism the way that the federal system does.

Legislatures in all three states sharply disagree with several core components of ESSA: in Indiana, on what qualifies as a high school diploma; in Colorado, on how to handle schools with high rates of students opting out of state tests; and in Florida, on how to handle students' English-language-proficiency scores.

Pushing Back

After ESSA was passed in 2015, the vast majority of states revised their existing accountability systems to comply with the federal law. But state politicians in Colorado, Florida, and Indiana, for a variety of reasons, refused to do so.

Education departments in those states, knowing full well the bureaucratic headaches having two accountability systems can cause, applied for waivers from the new federal law, wrote DeVos long letters about the effectiveness of their states' existing accountability systems, and huddled with district administrators and elected officials to try to come up with a compromise.

But with this year's legislative sessions coming to an end and ESSA set to go into full effect this fall, state officials threw their hands up in defeat.

"It quickly became apparent that there wasn't an appetite to get to one system," said Jennifer McCormick, Indiana's schools superintendent. "The legislature just wasn't going to budge."

The prospect of getting two separate rankings based on two sets of factors next year has infuriated district superintendents who originally saw ESSA as a reboot to the federally driven school accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act, which ESSA replaced.

"For a lot of us, this is going to be a public relations nightmare because we have to explain how each of these grades will impact our districts," said Jeff Hendrix, the superintendent of a district in Indiana known as the School Town of Munster. "For some districts, communities are going to have to decide, 'Which one do I worry about? Should I worry about the state taking me over or a cut in federal funding?' "

A large coalition of Latino and black activists in Florida have petitioned the federal government to reject Florida's ESSA plan.

"The state proposes to bypass the official accountability system with a newly created shadow system, segregated from the state system for rating schools," the state's NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens wrote in a letter addressed to DeVos and several members of Congress. "The intent of Congress to focus attention on the needs of struggling student subgroups would be thwarted."

Florida's department of education didn't respond to requests for an interview.

The education departments in Colorado and Indiana, whose ESSA plans have been approved by DeVos, have launched communication campaigns to quell the outrage among superintendents.

"Colorado will not be returning to the era of two accountability systems as we had under No Child Left Behind," education Commissioner Katy Anthes recently wrote in a letter addressed to district superintendents and obtained by Education Week. "Our state accountability system will continue to be our primary means for letting parents and communities know how their schools are doing. Because of added priorities of the new federal law, it is likely that some additional schools will be identified through the Every Student Succeeds Act for extra support and improvement based on the performance of individual groups of students and overall low graduation rates. Thankfully, the federal law provides funding to help support these schools in making improvements for students."

In Indiana, administrators have been especially frustrated with their state's grading system over the past several years after exam scores were botched and the state department several times over reset the proficiency targets for schools.

Indiana school board member Katie Mote said the purpose of the state's accountability system is completely different from ESSA's.

"Our state's accountability system is designed to assess school performance, and ESSA is designed to support students in order to direct federal dollars," Mote said. "We believe it's not possible to align those two separate philosophical purposes. It's like apples and oranges."

Ranking Schools

While schools have yet to be ranked under their federal accountability systems in Colorado, Florida, and Indiana, it's apparent, judged by a review of their state and federal accountability systems, that the lists of schools most in need of help will differ based on the outlined criteria and the various weights assigned to each system's indicators.

For example, Colorado's and Indiana's ESSA plans factor in chronic-absenteeism rates at schools, while neither of their existing statewide systems do.

Florida's "federal index" will consider English-language-proficiency exam scores when ranking schools, while the state's grade-based accountability system does not.

"The state is going to give out conflicting information that's misleading, dishonest, and the exact opposite of transparent," said Rosa Castro Feinberg, a civil rights activist and scholar in Florida who has protested the state's ESSA plan. "In terms of telling taxpayers and parents what the true status of schools is, the attention won't be focused on who actually needs help."

There remains a large gap between the outcome of America's schools and how parents perceive them to perform.

Although just a third of America's students are reported as meeting state reading and math standards, for example, 90 percent of parents think their child is doing perfectly fine, according to a survey conducted by Learning Heroes, a nonprofit group that consults with states to design more parent-friendly school report cards.

The NCLB law in 2001 set into motion what many states considered a heavy-handed accountability movement. But, for many states, politicians had accountability systems already in place. By 2004, 21 states had accountability systems that were different from the federal system.

The Council of Chief State School Officers in 2011 set about working with states on merging their dual systems, and President Barack Obama soon began handing out waivers from the NCLB law to states in order to flow federal money to the schools states thought most in need of help.

But at least eight states never received waivers, and with the passing of ESSA, officials in those states were eager to finally get everyone on the same page.

California Example

California, for instance, went more than 16 years operating under two separate systems.

By last year, the state's accountability system indicated that schools were improving overall while the federal system indicated that most of the state's schools were failing to meet federal targets.

Related Blog

"Parents were getting a letter sent to them in the mail saying their school didn't make adequate yearly progress [NCLB's yardstick] and then they're hearing from their principal that we're getting this letter but just ignore it. It's just a federal measure," said Rob Manwaring, a researcher who consulted with California to help merge its system with NCLB and who now works as a policy and fiscal adviser for Children Now, an advocacy group that argues that the state's new accountability system also doesn't comply with the federal law.

And as state education departments are polishing up their report cards for release next year, officials are still debating how best to display two separate sets of criteria and two rankings along with the slew of other data that ESSA and states will require state departments to report to the public next year.

"Our goal is to make sense out of it for the public," said Alyssa Pearson, Colorado's associate commissioner of accountability, performance, and support. "We're going to use both systems to direct money for interventions as best as we can. When you look at it, it's really a complementary system when you put them together."

Vol. 37, Issue 35, Pages 1, 17

Published in Print: June 13, 2018, as States Still Strain to Find One Path on Accountability
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