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Every Student Succeeds Act

How Many Schools Are Low-Performing Under ESSA? Here Are Some Answers

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 19, 2019 | Updated: March 31, 2023 3 min read
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Updated: A previous version of this page included an embedded report, which has since been removed.

Much of the federal education law deals with schools struggling to meet expectations. And we have new information concerning just how many of them are being tagged as needing improvement in the Every Student Succeeds Act era. But the answers vary significantly by state.

A new report from the Center on Education Policy takes a state-by-state look at the number of schools that have been identified as needing comprehensive support and improvement, targeted support and improvement, or additional targeted support and improvement. Those are ESSA’s three school improvement categories.

The share of schools getting each one of those labels can vary dramatically from state to state. In Florida, for example, 69 percent of schools fell into one of those buckets, while in Maryland, just 3 percent of schools have received one of the labels so far. The same goes for the share of schools in each of those categories: In Arizona, 41 percent of schools need targeted support and improvement, while in Kansas, the corresponding figure is just 6 percent.

Need a reminder of which schools those labels apply to? Basically, schools needing comprehensive support and improvement are Title I schools with very low overall performance, or high schools with low graduation rates, while the other two types of schools have some sort of chronic underperformance among student subgroups. These labels matter schools are supposed to get evidence-based interventions tailored to address their problem areas.

During March and April of this year, the center asked states directly how many schools were getting each label. However, four states (Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, and Ohio) didn’t respond to CEP’s request, while three others (Maine, Oklahoma, and Vermont) said either they had yet to count up such schools or else were trying to amend their ESSA plan on this front.

Big caveat: CEP Deputy Director Diane Stark Rentner, who helped craft the report, said making state-to-state comparisons about the numbers is a tricky business. Why? “It’s 50 different approaches,” she told us. “We tried not to compare states to one another because the state plans are very different.”

With that in mind, numbers in these plans might reveal states’ general aggressiveness (or lack thereof) in identifying schools for improvement. So which states have identified the highest share of public schools for some kind of improvement? Here’s a handy chart:

Some states haven’t identified targeted support and intervention schools because their ESSA accountability systems haven’t been around long enough to pinpoint “consistently underperforming” student subgroups. That phrase itself has been a big point of controversy under ESSA. Supporters say the law was written to provide states flexibility on issues like this one, but others argue it’s allowed states to mask or disregard groups of students that might struggle for years in schools that need support.

In addition, Rentner said 19 states hadn’t identified additional targeted support and intervention schools when they provided info to the group, which operates out of George Washington University.

She said she was surprised to find states that had identified more than half their public schools for some kind of ESSA school improvement designation. If the law goes the way of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, and reauthorization in Washington languishes for more than a half-dozen years, these schools could put an increasing strain on states, she added.

Last year, one estimate from experts was that more than a quarter of all schools could be tagged for additional targeted support and improvement.

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