Every Student Succeeds Act

Education Department Gets Feedback on Preparing ESSA Rules

By Alyson Klein — January 19, 2016 5 min read

The Every Student Succeeds Act may be the law of the land, but there are plenty of pieces of the latest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that will need to be clarified through regulation.

To kick that process off, the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input from a broad range of advocates, educators, associations, and the general public. It’s asking for written comments by Jan. 21, and also using a pair of public meetings to get in-person opinions.

Unsurprisingly, advocates at the first meeting—held Jan. 11 in Washington—offered conflicting advice on the direction the department should take on regulations under the newly revised law. The second hearing was scheduled for Jan. 19 in Los Angeles.

Representatives of state and district officials, such as the Council of Chief State School Officers and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, reminded the Obama administration of restrictions on its power in ESSA and suggested a light touch.

But civil rights and business groups want to see the Education Department hold states’ feet to the fire, including on such parts of the law as the requirement that 95 percent of students take part in state assessments. (Under ESSA, as under the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, 95 percent of students are supposed to take assessments. But it’s up to states to decide what happens to schools that miss targets.)

Civil rights and business advocates also urged the department to set boundaries around how much academic vs. nonacademic factors have to count in state accountability systems.

At times, advocates got technical. For instance, several asked the department to think carefully about setting parameters for “n-sizes.” That term refers to the minimum number of students a school or district must have from a particular subgroup, such as English-language learners, for the group to count for accountability purposes under the federal law. Under the NCLB law, n-sizes approved by the Education Department ranged from 75 to 5.

Here’s a sample of points made in last week’s testimony, in the order advocates spoke:

Bob Wise, Alliance for Excellent Education:
ESSA regulations should ensure that schools don’t “mask” graduation rates and achievement of historically overlooked groups of students. And graduation rates should play a big enough part in the accountability picture to trigger interventions in schools where lots of students are dropping out.

Peter Zamora, Council of Chief State School Officers:
The Education Department should use the regulatory process to clarify the parts of ESSA that are confusing, such as how the transition from the previous version of the law and NCLB waivers will work. But he said, generally, the CCSSO “urges the department to provide clear and timely interpretative guidance only when necessary to resolve uncertainties.” In other words, the department should let states be in the driver’s seat on K-12.

Liz King, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:
The department must make sure that ESSA retains the underlying ESEA’s civil rights legacy. That means communities of color, low-income communities, American Indian tribes, and others should have a seat at the table in the development of state accountability plans. And the department should enforce ESSA’s requirement that 95 percent of students participate in state tests so that “all students are taken into account.”

Tom Sheridan, National Head Start Association:
The Education Department should give clear guidance on how districts and Head Start centers collaborate. Districts should also receive “clear information” about how they can use federal K-12 aid for early-learning programs. Also, the Education Department should begin working with the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, on the new early-learning program created under ESSA.

Brenda Calderon, National Council of La Raza:
Make sure that states with many English-language learners give serious weight to English-language proficiency.

Christine Wolfe, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:
The regulations should embrace “robust assessments,” which are critical to school accountability and a “critical component” of measuring the success of charter schools. Washington should make sure states are primarily considering student achievement for school accountability, as opposed to “soft indicators.”

Lily Eskelsen García, National Education Association:
ESSA will be a “monumental transition” because it requires deep collaboration at every level: the state, the district, and even the school building. The Education Department should allow time for that collaboration to take place and not rush the regulatory process. Make sure, she said, that the “people who actually know the names of the kids"—parents and teachers—are at the table.

Scott Sargrad, Center for American Progress:
Help states move toward better and fewer tests. Spell out ways that states can ensure standards actually get students ready for college and career. Clarify key terms in the law on accountability. Make sure states actually require equitable distribution of teachers. (Lack of enforcement of that provision was a big problem under the NCLB law.) And the department should not be “overly prescriptive” and close off possible innovative approaches to accountability.

Julie Borst, New Jersey parent and representative of Save Our Schools:
Voiced worry that the new law continues the NCLB law’s regime of testing students every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. “From where I sit as a professional, the tests are a waste of time and money. ESSA doesn’t go far enough in” paring them back, she said.

Jeff Simmering, Council of the Great City Schools:
The Education Department should make it clear right away that districts no longer have to set aside money for outdated NCLB-style interventions: public school choice and tutoring. Make sure peer reviewers are real practitioners. And “recognize restraint” in the regulatory process.

Lynn Tuttle, National Association for Music Education:
Let states hold schools accountable for ensuring access to music and arts education.

Jamy Brice-Hyde, classroom teacher from New York state:
Said she is concerned the federal government may be too heavy-handed in regulating the decisions of parents who want to opt their children out of standardized tests. Her school had an 18 percent opt-out rate on tests, and she doesn’t want to see federal money withheld as a result. “Why would you punish me” for a parent’s choice, she asked.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Gets Advocates’ Views on Preparing ESSA Regulations

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