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Every Student Succeeds Act

Biggest Transitions Facing States for ESSA Accountability Flagged in New Report

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 19, 2016 5 min read
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As policymakers, analysts, and others weigh the impact of the Every Student Succeeds Act, one of the biggest and hairiest questions is: Just how much will states have to change their previous accountability systems in order to comply with the federal education law, and what will be the most significant of those changes?

A new analysis from the Center for American Progress, “Making the Grade, A 50-State Analysis of School Accountability Systems,” released on Thursday, has some interesting answers and also identifies where states stand as they figure out how (and how much) to change their current systems to match ESSA, after about 15 years of life under No Child Left Behind and NCLB waivers. In addition, it has a neat interactive feature in which you can explore states’ accountability indicators. Center for American Progress is a left-leaning think tank.

Here are a few key findings from the study about the biggest shifts from NCLB and its waivers to ESSA:

  • The vast majority of states will have a lot of work to do to meet ESSA’s requirement (a first in the history of federal education law) that students’ English-language proficiency be included in state accountability plans, “which is not a small thing,” Scott Sargrad, one of the report’s authors, told me in an interview. Just six states do so right now, according to the CAP report, and on average they place a pretty small weight on it in accountability.
  • Virtually no states disaggregate all of their accountability data by individual subgroups, Sargrad told me. That’s not a cheap or simple proposition. And it could prove tricky, for example, when you consider how states might approach the much-discussed school-quality indicator in their required ESSA accountability plans. That will measure things like school climate and safety, student engagement, and postsecondary-readiness, among other options.
  • The number of accountability indicators now used by states ranges from four to 26. And while 45 states use student growth in English/language arts and math, the models they use to measure it can vary significantly, as do the incentives they create.

The report is intended to show where states are now. But it could also show where states’ appetites are in terms of what they’d want to include in ESSA-friendly accountability systems.

“While the majority of states have surpassed the requirements of NCLB, nearly all states will need to make adjustments to comply fully with the new law,” states the report, which was written by Samantha Batel and Carmel Martin well as Sargrad. All three, it should be pointed out, worked at the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama.

The three authors relied on information in NCLB waivers, as well as information supplied by state education departments. But just because some states might find the shift to ESSA an easy task on its face, that shouldn’t automatically be the end of the story, Batel told me: “They shouldn’t go about just selecting indicators because it’s what they’ve done in the past.”

One key note here: CAP did not report how many states use “super subgroups,” which states adopted through NCLB waivers and allowed them to combine various subgroups of disadvantaged and other students into a single group for accountability under various names. States are prohibited from using them for accountability purposes under ESSA—that will also be a significant transition for many states, although civil rights groups like the Education Trust aren’t sad to see them go.

Where States Stand

Need a quick refresher about what ESSA requires for accountability? You can check out our ESSA overview and accompanying video. But here are the essentials if you need context for CAP’s report:

  • For elementary and middle schools, states need to incorporate at least four indicators into accountability. The menu includes three academic indicators: proficiency on state tests, English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor that can be broken out by subgroup, which could be growth on state tests. (Many states are set up well, at least on the face of things, to include growth in ESSA school accountability.) Then they have to add the school-quality indicator.
  • For high schools, it’s pretty much the same mix, but graduation rates also have to be included.

You might be curious about how states weight various indicators. Although 15 states had to be excluded from CAP’s analysis of these weights for various reasons, it found, for example, that the plurality of states put a weight of between 26 and 50 percent on academic proficiency, and the same went for student growth.

On average, CAP found that among the states weighting their accountability indicators, academic achievement counted for 48 percent of a school’s rating.

Let’s also look at the use of indicators that are a little less familiar to some accountability mavens: the ones states use that could fit the “school quality” indicator of ESSA.

Right now, according to the report, 42 states use at least one of the following: an “early warning” indicator like attendance, chronic absenteeism, and whether students are “on track” to graduate; “persistance indicators,” including dropout rates and the re-engagement of dropouts; college- and career-readiness indicators like postsecondary enrollment; and other indicators involving things like school climate, arts, and physical fitness. However, 14 of those states only use such indicators for high schools.

One trend: States that like to track participation in and completion of advanced coursework also tend to like tracking the same for college-entry exams:

But just how interested are states in pursuing indicators less strictly tied to coursework and to use other means to measure “school quality”? You can see for yourself below:

“Educator measures” can include things like staff retention, while “other measures” can include earning credits in courses such as world languages and physics.

Back in 2014, former Politics K-12 blogger Michele McNeil found in an extensive analysis that, by that time at least, just 18 states took advantage of waivers to include multiple measures in accountability that went beyond NCLB-style indicators of test scores, test participation, and graduation rates. (The 2012-13 school year was the first year for waivers.)

One other things: Sargrad noted that states will have to find a fine balance between picking indicators that are easily incorporated into accountability systems that use five stars and A-F grades and are easily understood by parents, and choosing measures that will be particularly useful for activities like school interventions.

“That’s something that schools should really think carefully about,” he said.

For more information about what ESSA means for schools, districts, and states, watch this video featuring Politics K-12 co-blogger Alyson Klein:

And read the full CAP report below:

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