School Accountability Is Restarting After a Two-Year Pause. Here’s What That Means

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 11, 2022 10 min read
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For a moment, the COVID-19 pandemic succeeded in doing what periodic protests about school accountability could not: Halting it.

For the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, states did not have to use the results of standardized tests to identify schools needing help. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is insisting that states resume that approach.

And like starting an old car after a New England winter, it’s probably going to be a noisy, sputtering process.

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President George W. Bush, left, participates in the swearing-in ceremony for the Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, center, at the U.S. Dept. of Education on Jan. 31, 2005 in Washington. On the far right holding a bible is her husband Robert Spellings.
President George W. Bush, left, participates in the swearing-in ceremony for the Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, center, at the U.S. Dept. of Education on Jan. 31, 2005 in Washington. On the far right holding a bible is her husband Robert Spellings.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The pandemic hit just as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the much-less-prescriptive successor to the No Child Left Behind law, was finally underway, with states beginning to work with the first schools they identified under the law’s framework for improvement.

The disruption interrupted that critical process, and now many states will effectively be clearing the decks—setting new testing goals, rejiggering their school quality and academic indicators, and trying to make the systems mesh with students’ unprecedented academic needs.

“I’m expecting a lot of states will be starting from a clean slate. It’s almost as if the last five years of ESSA implementation and all of that work might be irrelevant now,” said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development at All4Ed, an advocacy organization that generally supports school accountability.

Education Week interviewed testing experts and state officials, analysts, and pored through states’ proposals for this fall’s accountability process. Here’s your cheat sheet for what it all means moving forward.

The context: What happened the last two years

Testing in the 2019-20 school year was scheduled right as nearly every school closed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. That spring, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos waived both the federally required tests, and the accountability requirements that stem from them.

For the 2020-21 school year, the Biden administration, on a case-by-base basis, allowed states to change the timing of their exams, waive participation rate requirements, or test only in certain grades. It let at least one jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, forgo the exams.

States were again allowed to waive the accountability consequences that year, but did have to agree to report some data and continue supporting schools that they’d flagged for support prior to the pandemic.

States must resume flagging schools in need of help

The Education Department is requiring states to identify three groups of schools in the fall for assistance, based on this spring’s testing results.

The first group is composed of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, and high schools in which a third of students aren’t graduating. These “comprehensive support and intervention” or CSI schools receive the most help.

States will also have to identify two other groups of schools: those in which only particular groups of students (like English-language learners or students with disabilities) repeatedly fall behind, and finally those in which one of these subgroups performs as poorly as students in the lowest-performing schools.

As before, the ESSA law gives states a lot of leeway. States design what indicators they use in these identification systems and how to weigh them, and in concert with districts determine how to intervene in the schools that fall into these categories.

One additional complication concerns the cadence of interventions this fall.

States only have to identify their CSI schools every three years, and most made their first batch of identifications in 2017-18 or 2018-19. Now, regardless of those earlier timelines, all states must make new identifications in the fall.

States are struggling to resolve some tricky measurement issues

Assessment remains the lynchpin of these identifications systems, and testing experts are currently working with states to adapt their plans for this year.

Hugely divergent participation rates on the 2020-21 exams remains the most significant problem. Wyoming tested almost 97 percent of its students, but at the other end of the scale was New Mexico, which tested just a fraction, 10 percent. Other states fall somewhere in the middle.

The missing data and low participation rates threaten to throw off the measure of student growth that most states use as an additional academic indicator in their accountability system, and many states are currently trying to determine whether it is feasible.

“People recognize there are issues with essentially missing data in 2021, but there are more states than I would have expected that are trying to push forward with growth,” said Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment, a technical assistance group.

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Typically, he said, those are states that largely returned to in-person schooling in 2020-21, tested most of their students, and now want to try to get a sense of whether achievement is beginning to rebound. States with less data will probably need to devise an alternative measure just for this year.

Changing enrollment patterns and student mobility are also issues that could threaten the validity of data.

Other potential issues: The meaning of chronic absenteeism—an indicator of school quality more than half the states use—changed as students moved into and out of hybrid or remote learning. And graduation rates, another measure, were affected as states changed how they allocated credits during the pandemic.

The department has given states some new one-year flexibility …

For 2021-22, the Education Department has offered states what it’s billed as one-year technical flexibility to get the systems back up and running.

Under this flexibility, states can substitute a different measure for student growth than the one approved in their plans. They can change features on their school report cards. They can temporarily change how they weigh their indicators for this year, or put in a new indicator specially designed to address pandemic-related challenges.

States can also fiddle with the rules they’ve set up to decide how to “exit” schools from an improvement category if they show enough academic progress—or how to increase the intensity of interventions if they don’t.

At the time of this writing, the Education Department has approved nine states’ plans, and it is negotiating with 15 others.

... But some of states’ proposed changes could be longer-lasting

Some of the Education Department’s proffered flexibility could have consequences beyond just a year. That is raising concerns—though not full-fledged alarm bells yet—among accountability advocates.

“I think we recognize that ESSA did transition to be more state and locally driven systems and in some ways COVID just exacerbated or expanded that,” said Terra Wallin, the associate director for P-12 federal policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for disadvantaged students. “How much are we thinking through those choices? Are they time-limited, or will they carry over into the future in ways that might be concerning?”

Their concerns fall into a few main areas.

First, the department is letting states push back their long-term goals for student learning by up to two years. The goals are primarily symbolic, because in most states failing to meet them doesn’t actually trigger any consequences.

Still, some groups say that such a change tacitly signals to states that it’s OK to take their feet off the gas pedal.

“The pandemic should not create an excuse to further lower expectations for any student group, including for students with disabilities,” wrote the Center for Learner Equity, a group that supports those students, in response to the department’s flexibility offering. “We know that over 30 states have already set goals that differ by subgroup and believe that, in most states, the goals set for students with disabilities are already too low.”

Second, the law requires states to ratchet up interventions if schools with across-the-board under-performance don’t improve after at least four years, or in other schools where the performance of subgroups continues to be low. But the department says that states can propose holding off on escalating those consequences for two years.

“If you think of a kid in kindergarten or 1st grade when their school was identified in 2018, that student could almost be out of elementary school by now. And based on when it was identified, and allowing pandemic years not to count, maybe their school never improved and wasn’t rolled up to receive additional resources and support,” said Wallin. “The framing of this is just about timelines for identifying schools. But once you think about an individual student, it looks a little different.”

An Education Department spokesperson said these two flexibilities were offered in acknowledgement of the challenges schools faced during the pandemic.

School identification matters because it triggers additional funding

Because of all the complications, this fall’s accountability identifications won’t be directly comparable to what preceded the pandemic.

But nor will it be merely a technocratic exercise: School identification carries great consequences for funding.

Under ESSA, states reserve at least 7 percent of their Title I money to help support schools identified for improvement. These funds have a significant advantage over other resources—including pandemic recovery funds—because they are annual and continuing, not time-limited.

What’s more, Congress has invested more money in Title I, the program that aids low-income schools and students. In fiscal 2021 it approved a total of $16.5 billion, up from $15.7 billion in fiscal 2019. So states’ share of this funding is also proportionately larger than it was before.

The pandemic depressed many students’ overall achievement, so more schools are likely to need help this fall. Whether they will receive it remains unclear, given all of the technical changes to states’ plans.

“We have this pot of funds that goes to support school improvement, and we want to make sure that is aligned with the students who have the most needs coming out of the pandemic, not the ones who had the most needs back in 2017 or 2016,” said Hyslop.

What does the restart portend for accountability in the long run? It’s anyone’s guess

Will the pandemic ultimately carve another chink in an accountability wall that has gotten less stable since the early 2000s? Is the restart an indictment of how rigid our systems have become, and their limited ability to flex? Is it once again time to reconsider whether the nation has the balance between accountability and local control correct?

These are the most difficult questions to answer, in part because they’re so subjective.

Some groups, including the national teachers’ unions and the Council of the Chief State School Officers have urged the Education Department to offer even more flexibility than it has. So the fact that U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has insisted on relaunching accountability this year is notable, said John White, the former state superintendent in Louisiana.

“I think we should all appreciate that the secretary has articulated the importance of measurement and accountability at a time when there were a lot of threats to it. He has consistently stood up for it,” said White, now a managing principal at Watershed Advisors, an education consulting group. “That’s important.”

Hyslop of All4Ed said she’s not panicking yet, either.

“I was worried last year for sure that a lot of states were going to back away from assessment, were not going to give them, and was pleasantly surprised by the number that believed it was important to get that check on how students were doing because last year was so chaotic,” she said. “I think for the most part states did a pretty good job.”

Still, said Ellen Forte of edCount, a consulting group, there is a growing sense among some state officials that the systems might detract from—rather than supplement—their work to get learning back on track.

“Some of the assumptions just cannot hold anymore. There are still a significant number of kids who just are missing, and in many cases they’re the kids that this law since its inception has been trying to target, kids who are really facing a lot of challenges in highest-poverty communities,” she said. “It’s saying we need to remember why we’re doing all this stuff, and maybe rethink the kind of assessments we use and require, and the data we accept.”

Illinois, for example, is considering exams that are given at various points through the school year instead of at once at the end, so teachers don’t just get feedback at the end of the year when it’s too late to re-teach. Florida recently passed new legislation to shift to that model.

White worries that there’s little leadership on the biggest and toughest question: After 20 years of federal accountability, where should we go from here?

“It doesn’t seem radical to say, let’s not just try to stitch together this system to being precisely what it was before,” he said. “Let’s insist upon accountability, but also acknowledge where the instruments and measures in the system need to be improved to get a better outcome.”

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.


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