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Education Secretary Spars With Senators Over School Ratings, ESSA Timeline

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 29, 2016 8 min read
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The top GOP Senate lawmaker for education criticized accountability proposals from the U.S. Department of Education that would require summative ratings for schools, saying such a requirement is not found in the Every Student Succeeds Act and would infringe on state autonomy.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman, told Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a hearing here Wednesday that he was also worried that the proposed ESSA accountability rules might give the department improper oversight over states’ content standards. And both Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member, expressed concerns the draft rules would make states and schools shift to the new law too quickly.

The meeting was the first time Alexander, one of ESSA’s main architects, shared concerns about specific policies in the draft ESSA accountability rules, which were released late last month.

Concerns about the regulations’ potential to put states in a straitjacket over addressing low test-participation rates, and whether definitions of struggling subgroups of students might be too loose (one of Murray’s prime concerns), also came up in the hearing, among other issues.

Emphasizing his view that previous education law and Education Department decisions dictated teacher evaluations, school improvement strategies, and other matters, Alexander said, “Those responsibilities have now been restored to states and local school boards and classroom teachers.”

In his testimony, King emphasized his department’s attempts to balance the flexibility for states in ESSA while ensuring that schools and states took appropriate and research-based action to help struggling schools and groups of students.

“We have to make sure that these interventions translate into progress,” King said.

States’ Choices

In his opening remarks and in an exchange with King, Alexander emphasized the draft rules’ summative-rating requirement as an example of where the department was overstepping its authority.

“The whole point of the law was to return to the states whether to do that or not,” Alexander said of assigning schools summative ratings, adding that while states like Florida might want an A-F school rating system or something similar, “Other states might not want to do it that way.” (The Council of Chief State School Officers has also expressed concerns about this rating requirement.)

In response, King said that states could construct those ratings in a variety of ways, and need not rely on letter grades or numerical scores. And he emphasized that such ratings were not only consistent with ESSA, but ultimately necessary in order to identify schools in need of comprehensive and targeted interventions.

“In order to do that, they will need a summative rating to achieve that status,” King told Alexander.

When Murray raised the issue of school ratings, however, she noted the balance in ESSA’s language that requires schools to be measured using multiple indicators, but also the requirement to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools, high schools with low graduation rates, and schools with struggling subgroups.

Alexander and Murray did team up to question the proposed timeline for states transitioning to ESSA. Although the first full academic year of ESSA is 2017-18, King noted that some schools would be identified for improvement for the 2017-18 school year, referring to the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools and high schools with low graduation rates, among others.

This part of the proposed accountability rules have made some state leaders unhappy, including Kentucky chief Stephen Pruitt, because of how it would require 2016-17 academic data to be used for interventions, and how it would make the transition to ESSA difficult and unclear for schools.

“That’s deeply concerning to teachers and parents around my state and around the country,” Murray said.

Alexander strongly urged King to consider identifying schools for improvement starting a year later, in 2018-19. King, in turn, said he was open to further input on this issue, but did stress the urgency of improving struggling schools.

Worries Over Struggling Students, Standards, Testing

The other primary concern for Murray was that the draft rules would allow states too much room in defining what makes a subgroup of students, like minority students or those in special education, “consistently underperforming.” That’s been a major concern of the civil rights community about the draft rules. States should be required to measure whether subgroups are meeting state academic goals and standards in determining which subgroups are struggling, Murray said, and not by comparing them to average statewide student performance.

“ESSA was clear—the performance of every single student and every single subgroup of students matters,” Murray said.

King told Murray his department was open to feedback about the definition, but stressed that the regulations ensure that states identify these students in some fashion.

The long-running controversy over content standards also got new life in the hearing.

Alexander, along with GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, criticized the draft rules that require states to submit “evidence” that they’ve adopted challenging content standards. Arguing that the department had in practice required states to adopt the Common Core State Standards before ESSA, the chairman questioned why the department would want to see such evidence, when the law only requires that states provide “assurances” about the quality of their standards. The department gave the states incentives to use the common core standards through various means, but there was no explicit mandate to do so.

“If the regulation makes it look like you could reject the evidence, and by rejecting the evidence you would reject the standards, why that goes around the barn door,” Alexander said. (ESSA says the department cannot dictate which standards states use or incentivize them to adopt any particular set of standards.)

But the requirement for evidence is subject to peer review by fellow states, King emphasized, and relates to issues such as whether a state’s standards are aligned with its assessments. He did not indicate any interest in having the department by itself review and reject content standards.

“Standards are set by states,” he told Alexander.

And King assured Alexander that states would have flexibility in determining how to address low test-participation rates. The draft ESSA rules give states a menu of options for dealing with schools that fall below the threshold of testing 95 percent of students, such as lowering a school’s overall rating—or states can pick their own plan for addressing low participation rates and submit them to the department. The senator emphasized to King that his department has “no ability to prescribe specific options ... none whatsoever” for dealing with low rates.

Here are a few other issues raised by lawmakers during the hearing:

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a long-time advocate for robust federal accountability, said in his view the accountability proposal did not go far enough in some places.
  • Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., urged the department to rely on its guidance related to transportation costs for students in foster care, rather than what’s in the draft ESSA rules.
  • Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., bluntly asked King why his department didn’t trust schools to make their own decisions about how to improve, and why he continued to push failed practices under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA’s predecessor. King said he did trust schools, but also stressed ESSA’s protections for civil rights of disadvantaged students and the sometimes-spotty history of states and districts in this area.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked how ESSA could improve access to advanced courses and other resources for poor and minority students. King responded that ESSA’s accountability language allows states to measure such course offerings and other approaches to close what Warren called “opportunity gaps.”

Previous Concerns from Lawmakers

It’s been a busy time for the secretary when it comes to ESSA oversight. Last Thursday, King gave testimony about the law to the House education committee, where several GOP lawmakers also criticized the approach to ESSA taken by the secretary and his department.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee’s chairman, told King he was worried the proposed accountability rules would end up requiring interventions in a larger number of schools, an outcome King said was not the department’s intent. And the secretary also defended the Education Department from allegations lodged by GOP lawmakers that it was trying to improperly create definitions for language such as “consistently underperforming” not found in ESSA itself, among other issues.

Separate from accountability, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., a possible successor to Kline as the House committee leader once the Minnesota Republican retires next year, continued the attack on the department for its proposals on regulating ESSA spending requirements. Foxx worried about the fiscal impact on districts, and asked the secretary whether his department had calculated how much the idea would cost districts. King said he did not have such a number available, but said the department’s proposal was lawful and would ensure appropriate equity between schools.

Photos: Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 21, 2015. —Susan Walsh/AP; John King Jr.—Mike Groll/AP

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