Answering Your ESSA Questions

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The Every Student Succeeds Act is hundreds of pages long—and that leaves a lot of room for questions as states and school districts work to turn federal mandates, guidelines, and goals into practice. As part of a continuing feature, Education Week's Politics K-12 blogger Alyson Klein has been answering questions from educators, policymakers, and others, with the help of experts in the field. Here are some highlights.

What's the toughest part of the Every Student Succeeds Act for districts to get a handle on?

It varies, experts and advocates say.

"There's a recognition that the promise of decreased paperwork, individualized accountability [for districts] isn't a reality," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. That's compared to their experience under the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act. "State plans look a lot like NCLB 2.0. ... The full benefit of the law isn't being felt," she said.

Districts also anticipate challenges with the test-participation portion of ESSA. The law says that schools that test fewer than 95 percent of their students must face some sort of consequence. But it also allows states to pass laws affirming parents right to opt their children out of testing, as Oregon does, for example.

And superintendents want to make sure they live up to ESSA's push for more equitable funding between high-poverty schools and other campuses. But it's a challenge to figure out how to ensure dollars are fairly and reliably distributed at the per-pupil level, Ellerson Ng said.

Some districts are also confused by a lack of clarity surrounding Title IV of ESSA, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, which districts can choose to use on arts, foreign language, college readiness, safety, and more, said David DeSchryver, a senior vice president and director of research at Whiteboard Advisors.

Also, DeSchryver is beginning to hear questions about a requirement in ESSA that schools and districts use "evidence-based" interventions with their lowest-performing schools. That might be trickier than it sounds on paper.

Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services for the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts, expects districts may have more questions as states finalize changes to accountability plans, requirements for English-learners, and reporting requirements.

How many states are including "school climate" in their ESSA accountability systems?

Not as many as you might think. ESSA told states they had to pick an indicator of school quality or student success to measure alongside test scores. Most states picked chronic absenteeism and/or college and career readiness. At least four say they are incorporating "school climate" specifically into school ratings, including Illinois (which is measuring climate through surveys), Maryland (which is also using surveys), Montana (where school climate is part of a broader measure of "program quality" that also includes reducing behavior issues and increasing engagement), and New Mexico (which is gauging school climate through "Opportunity to Learn" surveys).

Two others—California and Ohio—are looking at school discipline data. And Rhode Island and Tennessee are specifically looking at suspensions.

Must teachers still be "highly-qualified" under ESSA?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: ESSA got rid of the No Child Left Behind mandate that teachers must be "highly qualified," which typically meant they needed to have a bachelor's degree in the subject they were teaching and state certification. Instead, states must come up with their own definition of an "effective teacher." The federal government is explicitly prohibited from telling states what that can be.

ESSA also bars the U.S. Department of Education from interfering with state and district teacher evaluations. Since ESSA passed, six states—Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have decided to stop using teacher evaluations that included student outcomes, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Other states have kept performance reviews, but made some modifications. Florida, for instance, kept the student-growth measures, but lets districts decide how they are calculated.

How many states have included science testing in their ESSA plans, and what states will count science in their accountability system?

Every state will have to test students in science. The law, like NCLB, requires states to test students at least three times in science, once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9, and once in grades 10-12.

Those science tests don't have to be used for accountability purposes as they do for math and reading. But at least 19 states are choosing to make them part of their school rating systems anyway.

At least 14 states are using science as an indicator of school quality or student success, among them Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Vermont.

And at least five are using science tests as a way to gauge schools academically, including Illinois, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Do districts need state permission to take advantage of new ESSA flexibility to substitute a nationally recognized, college-entrance exam (like the SAT or ACT) instead of the state test for high school accountability purposes?

Yes. Guidance, from the Education Department makes that crystal clear: "A state has discretion as to whether it will offer its [local education agencies] this flexibility."

And at least one district that has sought its state's permission to use the SAT instead of the state test—Long Beach, Calif.—was told no.

In fact, states generally have been reluctant to offer districts this flexibility. That's partly because it's not easy for states to oversee two different testing systems, Julie Woods, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, said back in January.

States have to figure out how to pay for the college-entrance exams, design a process for districts to apply for the flexibility, and find a way to compare student scores on the state test with scores on the SAT, ACT, or another test.

That's "potentially a lot more work than states are currently doing," Woods said. "States have to decide what the payoff is for them."

What's more, the prospect of allowing districts to pick among multiple tests—and potentially change them from year to year—drives assessment experts "batty," said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which works with states on testing, because it becomes difficult to compare one district's results with another's. So far, just two states—North Dakota and Oklahoma—are working to move forward with this option.

How does ESSA handle mental health in schools?

There aren't any explicit requirements that states include mental health in their ESSA plans. But states can include them in the portions of their plans that deal with supports for low-performing schools, educator professional development, and Title IV of ESSA, the flexible block grant that districts can use for school safety, school counselors, and more. For instance, Kentucky will look at whether low-performing schools have access to mental-health professionals.

Most states haven't used ESSA as an opportunity to take mental health off in a new direction, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists.

Overall, she said, "specific details about mental and behavioral health [are] significantly lacking from the plans."

But she isn't so sure that would be the case if they had been written more recently. "These plans were written pre-Parkland," she said, referring to the murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. "Would these plans look different after renewed focus on mental health and safety? Maybe states would have tried to hold themselves more accountable for it if they were written now."

What's new for children in foster care under ESSA?

ESSA makes some key changes for this important population, which includes hundreds of thousands of students. First off, it asks school districts to break out achievement data and graduation rates for children in foster care as well as homeless and military-connected children, just like they do for other "subgroups" such as racial minorities, those from low-income families, and students in special education.

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Also, the law calls for students in foster care to be able to stay in their "school of origin" (a term the law does not define) even if it's no longer their neighborhood school. The state must work with districts and local child-welfare agencies to provide transportation. That was supposed to be in place one year after the passage of ESSA.

But state agencies may not be doing such a great job of complying with those requirements, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Social Change, which covers child welfare. Of the 44 states responding to the survey, 33 said they were working with local school districts to comply with the law. It's less clear that other states have implemented ESSA's requirements. And responses from certain states—Alaska, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, and New York—suggest that school districts have tried to comply with the law, but the state agencies could not "definitively confirm" that they had.

Vol. 38, Issue 27, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: April 3, 2019, as Answering Your ESSA Questions
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