The Trump administration has given three states—Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico—a detailed list of information that they need to supply in order to get their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act approved.
And some of the asks, especially for Delaware, offer clues as to how strict or flexible the U.S. Department of Education will be in interpreting parts of ESSA.
For instance, the department wants Delaware to reconsider its proposed student-achievement goals, since it doesn’t consider them to be “ambitious.” (ESSA calls for states to set “ambitious” achievement goals but doesn’t say what that means.)
In addition, the Education Department doesn’t think ESSA allows states to be able to count science and social studies test scores toward a school’s academic rating, as Delaware wants to do.
The department also is questioning whether states, including Delaware, can use Advanced Placement tests as a measure of college and career readiness because the tests aren’t offered in every school in the state. That’s a big deal, because more than a dozen states have written AP into their plans. And some other measurements that states have chosen to gauge college readiness, like vocational programs and dual enrollment, aren’t available in every school, either.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been vocal about the need for local authority in ESSA implementation, and her team designed an ESSA application that asks for the bare minimum of information on state plans. What’s more, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ESSA architect and DeVos ally, told the National School Boards Assciation that DeVos would approve every state’s ESSA plan.
Meanwhile, civil rights advocates are worried that the Trump administration won’t give state plans a thorough look.
So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have turned in their plans, and none have been given approval. The feedback on these first states indicates that the department is planning to set some limits on states, based on its interpretation of the law. But in some cases, those efforts could prove complicated, as key parts of ESSA are confusing or vague. What’s more, Congress, with encouragement from the administration, tossed Obama-era regulations that sought to clarify parts of the law.
Alexander said he is “reviewing the department’s letters carefully, but I expect the secretary’s actions to be consistent with the law.”
Dale Chu, who is working to review state plans with the Collaborative for Student Success, an advocacy organization in Washington, was surprised by the level of detail that the Education Department is asking from states, given the secretary’s rhetoric.
“The messaging that the states had been hearing up to the submission point was there was no reason a plan would not have been approved,” said Chu, the vice president for policy and operations at America Succeeds, which works to get business involved in education.
Not ‘Rubber Stampy’
But this early feedback “wasn’t as rubber-stampy as folks might have thought it would be,” said Chu, who previously worked in state education departments in Indiana and Florida. He expects the 33 states that haven’t yet turned in their applications will be “erring more on the side of providing more clarity and completeness to their plans.”
Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the feedback process seemed “fairly standard. ... It’s a good sign that you actually have the federal government saying here are the things we need more information on.”
Among the Education Department’s concerns in its initial round of feedback are that:
• Delaware is counting science and social studies test results as “academic indicators” in its system. The department’s understanding of ESSA is that only reading and math should count. This matters because states are supposed to give “much greater weight” to academic factors than to other factors in rating schools.
• Nevada needs to provide short-term goals for academic achievement, both for all students and each subgroup of students, and explain how much weight it is giving to language arts as opposed to math when determining a school’s overall score.
• New Mexico needs to better describe its statewide rules for when a school no longer has to be considered low-performing, and be more specific about how it would help schools ensure that low-income and minority students aren’t taught at disproportionate rates by ineffective or inexperienced teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Demands More Detail From States’ ESSA Plans