Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

Making Sure That Schools Measure Up Under ESSA

By Alyson Klein — December 30, 2016 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

The Every Student Succeeds Act seeks to turn over key decisions on school accountability to states, while maintaining federal protections or “guardrails” for historically overlooked groups of students. States and districts will get to decide how to handle teacher evaluation, gauge school progress, and fix their lowest-performing schools.

The law, the first revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in more than a decade, retains some aspects of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, including in areas such as mandatory testing. But it eliminates, updates, or overhauls many others.

The Obama administration has written regulations for how the accountability portion of the law would work, but it’s unclear if the incoming Trump administration and Congress will decide to pause, revise, or completely scrap those rules.

Here are some central elements of the accountability regime written into the law:

Accountability Plans

States must continue to submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education, as they did under No Child Left Behind. These new ESSA plans will start in the 2017-18 school year. The names of peer reviewers have to be made public, and a state can get a hearing if the department rejects its plan.

Accountability Goals

States can pick their own goals, both a big long-term goal and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address students’ proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates.

Goals have to set an expectation for closing the achievement and graduation gaps for all “subgroups” of students, including English-language learners, those in special education, and those in poverty.

Accountability Systems

States need to incorporate a total of five types of indicators of school performance into their accountability systems, four of them specifically linked to academics, plus at least one that reflects school quality or student success.

School Quality Indicator

New under ESSA, this indicator of school quality aims to get at factors that may not be captured by the typical test and metric-driven measures of school performance. Possibilities include student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, school climate and safety, or whatever else the state thinks makes sense. This factor will apply for schools at all levels—elementary, middle, and high school.

Elementary and Middle School

In addition to the school quality indicator, the lineup for elementary and middle schools must include students’ proficiency on state tests and English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor that can be broken out by student group, such as growth on state tests.

High School

In addition to the school quality indicator, high schools will be judged by basically the same set of indicators as elementary and middle schools, except that graduation rates will have to be part of the mix. Graduation rates could take the place of one academic indicator.

Test Participation

States have to incorporate participation rates on state tests into their accountability systems. (Schools with less than 95 percent participation are supposed to have that included.) But the participation rate is a stand-alone factor, not a separate indicator on its own.

Weighing the Indicators

It will be up to the states to decide how much the individual indicators will count, although the academic factors (tests, graduation rates, and so on) will have to count “much” more as a group than the indicators that get at students’ opportunity to learn and postsecondary readiness.

Low-Performing Schools

States must identify and intervene in schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent of performers. These schools have to be identified at least once every three years.

States have to identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less.

States, with districts, have to identify schools where groups of students are struggling.

School Interventions

For the bottom 5 percent of schools and for high schools with high dropout rates, districts will work with teachers and other school staff members to come up with an evidence-based plan for improvement. States will monitor the turnaround efforts.

If a school continues to founder, the state will be required to step in with its own plan after no more than four years. The state could take control of the school, fire the principal, turn the school into a charter, or do something else entirely.

Districts could also allow for public school choice that enables students to transfer out of seriously low-performing schools, but they have to give priority to the students who need it most.

In a school where specific groups of students are struggling, the school must come up with an evidence-based plan to help the particular group of students falling behind, such as students of different races or those in special education. If the school continues to fall short, the district must step in, though there’s no specified timeline. States and districts can also come up with a “comprehensive improvement plan” in schools where certain groups are chronically under-performing despite local interventions.

States can set aside up to 7 percent of all their federal Title I money for school improvement, up from 4 percent in the previous version of the law.

Testing

States still have to test students in reading and math every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and break out the resulting data for whole schools, plus for different subgroups of students. ESSA maintains the federal requirement for 95 percent student participation in tests.

States are prohibited from combining different sets of students into so-called “super subgroups” for accountability purposes.

Up to seven states can apply to try out local tests for a limited time, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Districts can use nationally recognized tests at the high school level, with state permission, such as the SAT or the ACT.

States can create their own testing opt-out laws, and states decide what should happen in schools that miss targets.

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