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Every Student Succeeds Act

If States Are Missing Their Own ESSA Goals, What Comes Next?

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 28, 2019 4 min read
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One of the prominent elements of the Every Student Succeeds Act is the ability for states to set their own long-term goals for academic achievement, graduation rates, and English-language proficiency. It marks a significant departure from the adequate yearly progress demands of ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. But what if states aren’t on track to meet those goals?

According to the law, the goals based on graduation rates and student achievement on state exams must be “ambitious” although the law does not spell out exactly what that word means. To get a state-by-state look at what these goals are, check out the key takeaways from state ESSA plans we published last year.

Because of the variety of goals and the reduced federal role from NCLB to ESSA, it’s not easy to keep tabs on how all 50 states and the District of Columbia are doing when it comes to staying on track. But if you think these goals are important, you might have cause for some concern. For the purpose of this item. story, we’ll focus on academic achievement goals.

Take the case of Idaho. Earlier this month, Idaho Education News reported that for the second year in a row, the state’s students did not meet any of the interim goals laid out in the state’s ESSA plan that was approved by the U.S. Department of Education. If students hit those interim goals, as you probably guessed, it means they are on track to meet the long-term goals.

In fact, Idaho laid out 22 interim goals for the 2018-19 school year, in English/language arts and math for all students as well as for different demographics of students. Idaho batted 0-for-22. Here’s an example: From 2017-18 to 2018-19, the state’s goal was for the share of Hispanic and Latino students scoring as proficient in math to increase by 9.1 percent. In fact, the share of those students achieving proficiency grew by just 0.7 percent.

“It’s a very big concern,” state board of education member Linda Clark told Idaho Education News. “We, as a Board, are committed and want to make sure the districts and classrooms have the kind of resources they need.”

Idaho’s performance with respect to goals for 2018-19 might be a worst-case scenario. And not every state has interim goals for every year. Let’s pick another state where we can drill down.

Connecticut set long-term goals for English/language arts and math performance for the 2029-30 school year, with interim targets for three other years before that. The first interim goals are set for the 2020-21 school year. For that school year, the state expects the state’s “high needs” students (a broad demographic including students with disabilities, those who get free or reduced-price meals, and English-language learners) to achieve a score of 57.6 on the state’s proficiency index in math. In 2017-18, those students reached a score of 52 on that index. In 2018-19, their score was 52.7.

So those students made progress toward that 2020-21 goal, but not much progress. Their improvement on that index will have to accelerate dramatically for 2019-20 and 2020-21 to hit that interim target. The news is similar for those students in E/LA, where students hit an index score of 57.5 in 2017-18 and 58.1 in 2018-19, with a 2020-21 goal of 62.3.

Peter Yazbak, a spokesman for the Connecticut education department, stressed that statewide, students are showing promising rates of improvement on the index, and that “high needs” students were improving at a faster rate than the state overall. He also highlighted the state’s policy of promoting the strategies being used by schools and districts demonstrating strong growth on the index, through its Alliance Districts strategy. (Those districts serve more than 200,000 students.)

“When evaluated separately, students from low-income families, English-learners, and students with disabilities are also showing improvements,” Yazbak wrote in an email.

‘Seemed Ambitious’ for ESSA

Here it’s important to highlight something we’ve written about before: ESSA does not require any sanctions if schools and districts don’t meet the relevant long-term goals. That’s not to say states can’t impose their own penalties on schools and districts. But it’s fair to ask in general how serious schools and states might be taking the goals, and the extent to which it’s fair to expect them to take them very seriously. The answers might vary significantly from state to state.

Still, in many cases, instead of looking at what academic achievement targets in different grades would translate into postsecondary success, states set arbitrary goals and used a “shoddy” process for selecting them, said Chad Aldeman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a research and consulting firm.

“I think a lot of states [tried] to set a goal that seemed ambitious to the constituencies in their states, without actually showing them what would be ambitious or achievable over a certain time period,” Aldeman said.

Two years ago when the Education Department was approving state ESSA plans, states were keen to highlight their long-term goals. In one press release from September 2017, the Council of Chief State School Officers highlighted those elements in plans from five different states—in the case of Hawaii, for example, the group noted that the state was planning for how federal resources could support the state, “rather than letting the federal government dictate educational goals and improvement strategies.” (CCSSO declined to comment for this story.)

Aldeman isn’t the only one with concerns. Well over a year ago, Achieve, a nonprofit group that works with states on academic standards and graduation requirements, released a report on states’ approaches to these goals that was less than sanguine.

“Our review of states’ ESSA plans found that most states did not call on historical data or trends to make the case for why they set their goals and measures of interim progress where they did,” the 2018 Achieve brief states.