The Ball Is in Betsy DeVos' Court as States Seek to Revise ESSA Plans

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New Mexico is planning a major shakeup of its plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. And it's not the only state that's mulling changes. Among others with potential revisions in the works: Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

Those rewrites could present an interesting test for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team. Will the department let a state go in an entirely new direction, as long as what it is proposing to do is still kosher under the law?

DeVos has approved ESSA plans for every state and the District of Columbia. Most state plans were in place at some point during the 2017-18 school year. So far, the department has outlined a streamlined process for approving changes to states' ESSA plans. State chiefs must first consult with their governors and give the education community an opportunity to comment. Then they need to send DeVos' staff a revised version of the plan that reflects the proposed changes in red, a cover letter describing what they want to do differently, and an explanation of how they reached out to the public to get feedback on the revisions.

Any changes that could affect how a state flags low-performing schools in the 2019-20 school year were supposed to have been submitted by March 1. Revisions submitted after that date will still be accepted and reviewed, but states may not be able to implement the changes by next school year.

This process applies to small tweaks, as well as to dramatic changes, along the lines of what New Mexico is proposing. It wants to ditch the state's system for rating schools on an A-F scale and replace it with broader labels for schools.

Schools in the top quartile of schools in the state would be labeled as "spotlight" schools. Those in the middle 50 percent would be considered "traditional support" schools. And those in the bottom 25 percent would get one of ESSA's labels, including "targeted support" (for schools where subgroups of students are struggling) and "comprehensive support" (for low-performing schools). The department has approved similar systems for other states under ESSA.

The state is also seeking to ditch the PARCC tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and rework its teacher evaluation system, arguably the toughest in the country. And the new interim state education chief, Karen Trujillo, has signaled more changes are coming, according to the Albuquerque Journal. The changes aren't coming out of left field. The original ESSA plan was developed under the previous governor, Susana Martinez, a Republican. The new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, ran on getting rid of many of the changes Martinez's administration put in place, including the teacher-evaluation system and the A-F rating system.

The former state chief, Christopher Ruszkowski, said the new proposal represents an important test for DeVos and her department.

"Right now in New Mexico, the big concern for a lot of [advocates]: Will the department provide the right degree of scrutiny to any amendments to a particular plan?" he said.

Dan Gordon, a senior legal and policy adviser for EducationCounsel, which provides policy consultation on ESSA, said he doesn't think making changes to a plan necessarily means it is being watered down.

"I think it's a mistake to view amendments as just retreats or bad news or driven by politics," he said. "The fact is, we want states to periodically review their approach. If their approaches are not delivering for kids, I would say they have not just a legal but a moral obligation to rethink and to revise and to improve."

Tweaking Systems

Elsewhere, Indiana is seeking to move away from its letter-grade system for federal accountability and replace it with new labels: "exceeds expectations," "meets expectations," "approaches expectations," and "does not meet expectations." Wyoming has also developed an amendment that reworks the state's goals, in part because of a new testing system.

Then there are bills under consideration in state legislatures that could force changes to ESSA plans. South Carolina is mulling legislation that would call for students to receive a yearly rating of their math and literacy skills. The legislation would also scrap some social studies and science testing, which might mean revisions to South Carolina's ESSA plan.

There's also potential ESSA drama in Michigan, where lawmakers voted last year to replace the accountability system at the center of the state's approved plan. They decided instead to use a new, letter-based accountability system that judges schools on English and math proficiency on a state test, growth in English and math scores, and growth among English-language learners, among other measures.

That state system, however, conflicts with ESSA and the main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That means, for now, that the state is using two separate systems: the one approved by the department for federal accountability and the new A-F system for state accountability.

Some in Michigan have suggested the state could ask the federal government for waivers in order to use the new state A-F system for federal accountability, but it is unlikely that those changes would be approved before the new school grades are implemented, said Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the Michigan education department. The state is considering next steps, he said.

Vol. 38, Issue 26, Page 17

Published in Print: March 20, 2019, as Ball in DeVos' Court as States Seek to Revise ESSA Plans
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