Hitting ESSA's Elusive Targets on School Accountability
State ESSA plans are all approved, but advocates withhold judgment on whether they're on the right trajectory
It's been more than three years since President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, and roughly half a year since the last approval of a state accountability plan by Trump administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Despite that procedural progress, the myriad of state plans and the painstaking nature of their rollout make it difficult for those in the education policy world to paint a comprehensive picture of how states and district leaders are—or are not—holding schools accountable for how well they serve students.
Although many have emphasized the newfound flexibility states and school districts would enjoy under ESSA, advocates and observers of different stripes haven't set aside their concerns about how the law is playing out.
For example, some continue to sound the alarm over what they say is the danger that one school might receive a higher overall rating, even as that strong score masks its failure to do well by subsets of students like those who are economically disadvantaged or have disabilities. Others are worried by what they say are fuzzy and uninformative state accountability systems that sometimes don't provide ratings at all.
And the center of gravity for school improvement strategies has shifted dramatically in favor of individual schools and districts—making it harder for national observers to paint a cohesive picture across state boundaries.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, people became accustomed to focusing, happily or not, on proficiency rates and what that law termed "adequate yearly progress" to judge how schools were performing, said Paige Kowalski, the vice president of policy and advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign, which works on how education data can be used to serve students. But under ESSA, there's simply a much bigger range of factors that states are using to judge schools, factors that are still largely unfamiliar to the public at large, such as chronic absenteeism.
ESSA is legally authorized only through the middle of 2020, but there's virtually no expectation that Capitol Hill will revisit the law any time soon.
"Accountability is still very much in its infancy, and data is still very much in its infancy," Kowalski said. "We need to let some of these measures bake and marinate and simmer a little bit, so we can better understand how we know if kids are learning."
At the same time, she said, as attention has drifted away from how states and schools are handling ESSA, much of the education community is "kind of dropping the ball." That inattention could hurt efforts to figure out what's worked and what hasn't whenever Washington lawmakers start looking at how to revamp ESSA, she noted.
Tough to Pin Down
Just finding out what states are doing on major accountability issues, many months after DeVos approved the last outstanding state plan, isn't easy even for experts.
When Elizabeth Ross, the director of K-12 state policy at the consulting firm HCM Strategists, was working on a report published in November on school improvement work under ESSA and checked what state education department websites said about their school improvement practices, some of the sites hadn't been updated since before ESSA passed.
HCM's report, one of the more recent surveys covering ESSA implementation, found that at the time, just 17 states had enough public information about the topic for the group's report to consider.
"With some states, we got the sense that they were still hiding the data," Ross said.
Among positive trends, Ross and her team identified Louisiana's efforts to create a statewide school improvement strategy focused on curriculum and teachers; Colorado's "streamlined" application to help districts get services and funding for improvement work; and Tennessee's soup-to-nuts approach in helping districts conduct a needs assessment, create priorities, and set goals.
"We're trusting that things are going well. But we know that a lot of things are happening behind the scenes," Ross said.
From his position as the chairman of the Wisconsin Senate's education committee, Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican, said he virtually never hears from educators about ESSA. That's not necessarily a bad thing in Olsen's book: His overriding concern is how, or whether, Wisconsin is going to meet its ESSA goal of cutting in half the achievement gap between groups of students such as white students and their black and Latino peers over five years.
"I don't really want to get into telling schools how to run their business," Olsen said. "We just want to hold them accountable for the outcomes."
At the same time, he's worried that if his state and others eventually can't prove that they're meeting the expectations they've laid out under ESSA, "the temptation from the feds is going to be [to say]: 'Well, we gave you a chance. Now we have to put the hammer to you again.' "
Lynn Jennings, the senior director of national and state partnerships at the Education Trust, which advocates for civil rights in education, said early returns for accountability under ESSA when it comes to actual outcomes aren't necessarily encouraging.
According to a preliminary analysis Jennings conducted of the first year of North Carolina's school grades under ESSA, 24 percent of schools receiving an A also had at least one group of students receiving an F.
Further down the list, the vast majority of North Carolina schools receiving a B grade—86 percent—had at least one subgroup getting a D or F rating, according to Jennings' early study of the numbers. She said those kinds of statistics reinforce her concerns that much of the public might get a misleading impression of school performance.
"How do we make sure that those students, those children, are not forgotten?" Jennings said. "There are groups, coalitions, that have made equity a focus. ... There are definitely some states where groups have come together and said: We definitely want to work together on these issues."
The lack of clarity on accountability can extend beyond measures such as school ratings into the realm of financial transparency. As of last month, for example, just five states had complied with the law's requirements to publish detailed spending figures on a school-by-school basis, including such information as the amount of various funding sources, according to a Data Quality Campaign analysis.
California has become one of the more heated battlegrounds for what kind of information is shared with the public and what's done with it.
The state has adopted a color-coded "dashboard" system, which assigns ratings to different factors of a school's performance but not an overall score. In February, the state released for the first time a list of hundreds of public schools identified as needing improvement under ESSA's categories.
The state's system represents the progression of an ongoing debate between fans of a hands-off approach to school improvement and those who believe the Golden State's strategy will simply let districts off the hook. For years, the state has often disdained what officials have said is top-down and narrow accountability directed at least in part by officials in Washington.
It's important to remember that the environment for key decisions about accountability can vary dramatically from state to state, said Dale Chu, an independent education consultant who's previously worked at the Florida and Indiana education departments. Whatever their priorities, states need to articulate clear principles and actively engage with their districts, even if it means districts don't always like what the state lays out: "Tension is good in these circumstances."
At the same time, Chu said he was skeptical of what he called the "just trust us" model for accountability.
"There are still a lot of questions," he said. "If you're a California parent and you want to compare how your school is doing to other schools, there's no way to do it."
Yet the public's attitudes toward these accountability systems isn't easy to predict and may not fit neatly with some advocates' concerns.
In a poll of Californians conducted by the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education and the research group Policy Analysis for California Education, 65 percent of voters who saw the state's dashboard had a positive impression, while just 19 percent had a negative impression. Among parents, the gap was even larger: 81 percent reported a positive impression, while 11 percent said they had a negative impression.
It's also fair to question how engaged the public is on the topic: The same poll found that just 17 percent of voters and 38 percent of parents had visited the dashboard at least once or twice.
Jennings of Education Trust said the issue of getting people who haven't gotten involved with ESSA to work on such issues as school grades is still one of her biggest priorities.
"Now we're getting more of the data, it's becoming real. Implementation is becoming real," Jennings said. "The rubber is really meeting the road now."
Vol. 38, Issue 27, Pages 8-9Published in Print: April 3, 2019, as Hitting the Elusive Target of School Accountability