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Inside ESSA Plans: What Are States Doing About Goals and Timelines?

By Stephen Sawchuk, Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — September 25, 2017 4 min read
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This week, Education Week is bringing its trademark analysis to the remaining state plans for fulfilling requirements of the Every Student Succeeds law. On Monday, we had a look at the states’ proposed “school quality” indicators—the required but nonacademic portion of each state’s plan to judge schools. Today, we’re going to take a look at states’ goals for raising student achievement and their timelines for doing so in the plans awaiting federal approval.

One thing we’ll keep stressing again and again this week: how far federal policy has moved since the days of the No Child Left Behind Acgt (ESSA’s predecessor). Read on.

So, what kinds of goals are states setting?

Some states chose fixed goals that aim for all students, and all subgroups of vulnerable students, such as those qualifying for subsidized school lunches or English-language learners, to reach the same target (such as 80 percent proficiency). What’s nice about this kind of goal is that it sets the same endpoint, making it easier to see over time how achievement gaps are expected to close. States in this category include: Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Mississippi, (grades 3-8 only), Ohio, Minnesota, New York, Rhode island, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Did any state brave 100 percent, which was the goal for all states under NCLB? That would be South Dakota, which aims for all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2030-31.

Other states picked relative goals, which means that schools’ endpoint is relative to their starting point, and can differ among groups of students. Even though this approach expects more progress of further-behind subgroups, they don’t have the same end target as the higher-achieving groups within the plan’s timeline. Falling into this camp are: Alaska, California, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, (grad rate only), Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin.

This is one of the big choices for states that advocates like the Education Trust, a group that works on behalf of needy students and students of color, have weighed in on. The group prefers the fixed-goals approach, assuming that the goals are ambitious but achievable, because with relative goals states need to do a lot of messaging to demonstrate that they’re not lowering expectations for some students.

“The state has to be really clear about the fact that different targets are requiring greater improvement on behalf of kids who are starting further behind, and that meeting them will be putting those students on the path to reaching that same goal in the future,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, the Ed Trust’s director of P-12 policy.

What happens to schools don’t meet these goals?

Mark this in bold: States don’t face any particular penalties for failing to reach their goals. All the law requires is that the state uses its indicators to identify the bottom 5 percent of schools for “comprehensive support,” and then another set of schools where particular groups of students have been underperforming for “targeted assistance.” Some states work progress toward the goals into their indicators, but many of them do not.

This lack of connection between goal-setting and consequences is, arguably, the biggest difference from NCLB. Under that law, not meeting annual performance targets triggered very specific school interventions, like having to offer free tutoring for students.

How difficult are the goals? How long do states have to meet them?

By law, those goals are supposed to be “ambitious,” but there’s no definition in ESSA for what constitutes an ambitious goal. And as the U.S. Department of Education uncomfortably found out in a back-and-forth with Delaware, pushing states too hard on their goals could invite the wrath of hawk-eyed lawmakers, who want to be sure the agency doesn’t overstep what’s in the law.

So, the goals the states have set are probably the ones they’re going to live by. Even then, most of the states noted in their plans that they will reset goals from time to time.

It’s borderline impossible to make an objective determination about ambitiousness without more detail: Most of the states provided little information on their schools’ rate of improvement over the last few years in their plans.

States also picked a wide range of timelines for their long-term goals. They range from just five years, in Iowa, which expects one-half to 1 percent annual growth in proficiency rates for schools and subgroups, to timelines spanning more than a decade. Georgia, for instance, wants its schools and subgroups’ proficiency rates to increase by 3 percent annually for the next 15 years.

Cut to the chase. What’s my big takeaway?

States are truly diverse both in the schools goals they set under ESSA and how long they plan to take to reach them. If that’s what Congress had in mind when it crafted a law that was more flexible than NCLB, it got it.

On the other hand, this wide range of goals—coupled with different indicators and weighting schemes—is definitely going to make implementation more challenging for analysts and watchdog groups to track.

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