Accountability Opinion

With ESSA, States Lead for Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — April 18, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Adriana Martinez, who is currently serving as the Interim Director of Operations for the Innovation Lab Network (ILN) at the Council of Chief State School Officer’s (CCSSO).

How are states taking advantage of ESSA to create a policy culture of continuous improvement?

In March, CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network (ILN) team made its way to sunny California to spend a few days diving into the world of deeper learning. Through the ILN, CCSSO supports states as they take actions and implement policies to support deeper learning, so learning opportunities such as the Deeper Learning Conference provide us a window into the practitioner perspective. These opportunities help us better understand how state policy permeates the local level and whether or not it supports or inhibits the work of practitioners.

In one of the sessions I attended, we were introducing ourselves through an activity where we identify a mascot that represents our teams and explain why this mascot is a representation of our work in education. Some were puppies, who are eager and excited; others described themselves as cockroaches, who are scrappy survivors that can adapt to any type of environment. One of the participants described themselves as a salmon, leading with bold leaps, making its way against the current of “high-stakes accountability.” As the participant spoke, I could see many heads nodding in understanding. This wasn’t a conference about accountability, or state policy, but similar comments around the impact of “high-stakes accountability” continued to pop up in many different sessions.

This undercurrent throughout the conference signals to me an appetite in the deeper learning community for a different approach to state accountability systems. My response to our deeper learning practitioners is this: join us. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to think about accountability as a system of continuous improvement in a way that breaks away from the unintended consequences of its predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As a person who works with state leaders closely, I know states are not letting this opportunity go, but they also need to hear from practitioners and leaders like those in the deeper learning community. ESSA provides different opportunities to create an environment that is more closely aligned to deeper learning--from including indicators of school quality and/or student success in accountability metrics to piloting innovative assessment models. One of the key paradigm shifts focuses on bringing together accountability systems with school improvement efforts, many of which are modeled by the schools and educators who attend the deeper learning conference.

Historically, state accountability and school improvement systems operated separately. Under NCLB, state accountability systems identified low-performing schools with few measures: test scores and/or graduation rates. The strategies used to improve these identified schools were limited. Since NCLB, states have improved the systems they have in place for identifying low-performing schools. CCSSO’s Principles and Processes for State Leadership Next Generation Accountability Principles served as a north star for states and are reflected in ESSA.

Under ESSA, states will use multiple measures for identifying schools (opposed to using only AYP) that need improvement. This means that under ESSA, states must design “accountability systems that provide a more comprehensive picture of student outcomes and opportunities to learn.” These systems will be able to capture factors that are important to fostering deeper learning by including a wider set of measures- such as school climate, student engagement, college and career readiness, etc. (to learn more, please see resources posted from our webinar series here).

More importantly, states want to be bold about how to shift away from single-measure, high-stakes accountability models to create a system of continuous improvement. A key strategy states are advancing through the development of their ESSA plans are the tiered uses of indicators for different purposes. The ILN has hosted a working group that allows state leaders to collaborate on this issue and share the strategies they’re developing and incorporating into their ESSA plans to develop a cohesive system that drives continuous improvement. Below are some examples of indicators that states are considering in their work, which we at the ILN feel could support schools and educators in their pursuit of deeper learning for all kids:

  • Indicators to make determinations around which schools are identified for targeted and comprehensive support: Some policy experts advocate that state accountability systems expand beyond a single summative rating system to determine the success and quality of schools. In the absence of a single summative rating, states can use strategies such as decision rules or matrices to identify schools for comprehensive and targeted support. The California school dashboard and the Vermont ESSA plan are examples of these strategies that employ multiple measures data dashboards.
  • Indicators that can be reported in dashboards and/or school report cards to increase transparency and communications with stakeholders such as parents: For example, Delaware indicated in its final ESSA plan submission that it plans on reporting additional indicators (that don’t factor into determinations) such as student, parent, and educator engagement; class size; specialist-to-student ratio; equitable access to high quality teachers; and post-secondary outcomes.
  • Indicators to support school improvement through needs assessments and progress monitoring: In their ESSA plan submission, Ohio proposes to use an “updated and expanded Decision Framework” that uses multiple indicators. These indicators would identify non-academic factors that are important in understanding the challenges a school may face, which would help identify the appropriate strategies for support. The use of indicators in this space allows the state to take into account local context and recognizes that the root causes will differ from school to school. Vermont is in its second year of piloting its education quality reviews, which provide qualitative data to support continuous improvement for all of its schools in the implementation on the Vermont Education Quality standards.
  • Locally developed indicators that may be important to a community: The California school dashboard also reports on four local indicators that are identified by school districts and county offices. New Hampshire uses a different approach where it’s piloting a system, Performance Assessment for Competency-Based Education (PACE), where districts can use locally developed performance assessments in certain grade bands for accountability.
  • Indicators that track data points that have not been used at the state level, but the state wants to explore or pilot in the future: Colorado’s draft ESSA plan, signals that it wants to examine and make long-term recommendations for additional metrics around school climate, post-secondary work readiness, and socio-emotional learning that could be incorporated into their system in the future.

If states incorporate some or all of the indicators above, will that fix all of the woes of the education innovators at the deeper learning conference? Probably not all of them. Instead, these shifts may help states create policy environments in which the deeper learning salmons don’t feel like they have to constantly swim against the current. Hopefully, they will see the changes in state policy and see the same progress I see across the country as state policymakers are prioritizing factors that are important for continuous improvement and deeper learning such as post-secondary readiness, school culture, and student engagement.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.