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Is DeVos Sending Mixed Messages on Advanced Courses and Accountability?

By Alyson Klein — June 21, 2017 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to be sending some confusing signals when it comes to whether states will be allowed to use Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate tests, the SAT, dual-enrollment courses, or career certifications to figure out if students are ready for college and the workforce, some experts say.

Rating schools based on whether they get kids ready for college and the workforce was all the rage in state’s plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. And at least eight states—that’s about half of the 17 that have turned in plans so far—want to use AP, IB the SAT, dual enrollment courses, or career certifications for accountability.

The problem? It’s unclear if DeVos is cool with that, even though she has said she will make local control a big focus of ESSA implementation. What’s more, some experts worry that her team may be telling different states different things when it comes to how they measure college and career readiness.

Here’s how this became an issue: Delaware, like almost every state, wants to rate schools based on whether they get kids ready for college and career. To measure that, the districts can use AP test scores, IB test scores, and whether students hit certain targets on the SAT. Districts can also consider whether students have earned a B or better in a college-level course.

And to prove career-readiness, Delaware districts can use scores on military or technical education exams, or examine whether a student has successfully completely some sort of work-based learning experience. (Geeks can check pages 36 and 37 of Delaware’s application to see all this in black and white.)

The department dinged Delaware for this in a recent feedback letter, saying, essentially, that its approach may not pass muster if not all schools offer AP and IB, and if a significant percentage of kids don’t take the tests.

“I am confused by this feedback, for sure,” said Anne Hyslop, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration and is now a senior associate at Chiefs for Change. She said that as long as states have set a consistent definition of what it means for kids to be college-and-career ready, they could allow districts to demonstrate it in different ways. Otherwise, only states that offer AP, ACT, or the SAT to all their students would be able to use college and career readiness in their systems.

She suggested the department may want to come up with some sort of guidance document, including some examples of how college readiness can be measured. Otherwise states will have to comb through feedback letters “to each and every plan and cobble together policy guidance, and [to get] some direction of what’s okay and not okay.”

We asked the department if Delaware’s letter meant no state can use a mix of AP, IB, and dual enrollment to measure college and career readiness, as more than half a dozen states want to do. Liz Hill, a spokeswoman, said Delaware specifically may be able to use AP and IB test scores for accountability if it does a better job of explaining how those scores are a valid, statewide measure, as required under ESSA. “If they gave us info[rmation] on how that would be the case, it could be fine,” Hill said.

But that answer doesn’t seem the same as what the department appeared to tell Delaware. We asked Hill for clarification, and we’ll let you know if we hear back.

The answer may matter to more than just Delaware. Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New Mexico want to use a mix of AP, IB, dual enrollment, and other advanced coursework for accountability.

And Nevada, which also has received feedback from the department, has language in its plan on measuring college-and-career readiness that’s pretty similar to Delaware’s. (If you want to check out Nevada’s pitch on this, go to page 32 of its plan.) Importantly, while Delaware got criticized in its feedback from the department for this, the agency didn’t criticize Nevada, although it did ask for more informaton on the college-and-career-ready indicator.

That was perplexing to experts who examined both states’ plans, including Dale Chu, who is the vice president for policy and operations at America Succeeds, which works to get business involved in education.

Both Nevada and Delaware, Chu said, seem to offer districts a menu of choices when it comes to showing their students are ready for college or the workforce. The main difference, as he sees it, seems to be that Delaware is emphasizing both college and career. But he doesn’t see that as a reason for the department to reject Delaware’s approach, if it is OK with Nevada’s.

“In terms of the difference ... why does one state get a slap on the hand and the other doesn’t? Your guess is as good as mine,” said Chu, who previously worked on education issues in Florida and Indiana.

Chu finds the extensive feedback states are getting from DeVos’ department to be “fascinating” given that the secretary said she was all about local control. “The signals are all over the place. If I were a state, I would selfishly just ignore some of this stuff and say we’re going to do the plan we want to do.”

Already, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers has complained about the department’s ESSA approach, saying it goes beyond what’s in the law. In fact, his statement on the issue specifically brought up the AP/IB/dual enrollment question.

And if DeVos and Company are using different standards for different states, Congress may start complaining. One of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.'s biggest gripes about the Obama administration is that it played an inconsistent game of “mother may I” with states.

Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this story.

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