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Every Student Succeeds Act

State Chiefs’ ESSA Accountability Pledge: ‘There Will Be No Backpedaling’

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 11, 2015 3 min read
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One of the biggest headlines about the Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law Thursday, is this: States, as well as districts, will have a lot more discretion over education policy, including how they craft accountability systems.

So what do state superintendents plan to do with that new power? And how much do they see accountability changing under ESSA?

According to three chiefs who participated in a Council of Chief State School Officers conference call Thursday afternoon, they appreciate the new flexibility and plan to have greater collaboration with their districts and greater customization of their oversight of schools. But they said that there should be no fear that states will simply let accountability go slack and ditch much of their work over the past several years.

“I don’t see anything changing, except for it being better,” said Wisconsin Superintendent Tony Evers, who was on the call along with North Carolina Superintendent June Atkinson and New Mexico Secretary Hanna Skandera. “There will be no backpedaling.”

If you’ve read some of our ESSA coverage, you’ve probably encountered concerns from some that states—without the No Child Left Behind Act or NCLB waivers to hold them to tight accountability requirements regarding test scores and school turnarounds (among other things)—simply won’t hold schools accountable for student learning like they did before.

Those concerns have been particularly acute when it comes to many struggling schools that might not be subject to specific NCLB or NCLB waiver sanctions, or when it comes to the use of “super-subgroups” in NCLB waivers, a departure from the traditional student subgroups under NCLB Classic. Those super-subgroups have had some advocacy groups worried for years.

So what about that super-subgroup issue? CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich said in his view, ESSA didn’t paint a black-or-white picture when it comes to their use, saying that while ESSA didn’t explicitly ban them, the NCLB-style disaggregation of students is required. (More on the super-subgroup issue here.)

“States might use lowest 25 percent [of students] as part of their accountability system, but they would also have to use something that would use the more traditional subgroups,” he said.

And Skandera said New Mexico’s use of super-subgroups through its NCLB waiver has allowed the state to capture the performance of an additional 20,000 students, since under NCLB those students didn’t meet the threshold for statistical significance.

“Those 20,000 students are no longer left behind,” Skandera said.

More broadly, Minnich said that while ESSA will allow states to improve their accountability systems, “I don’t think it’s a complete restart.”

What else are state chiefs looking forward to? Atkinson said she was looking forward to fewer prescriptive measures from Washington.

“I am pleased that the accountability system outlined in the law is about what, and not how,” she said. “We are excited in our state to be able to have some flexibility in adding additional measures.”

Those additional measures North Carolina might consider, Atkinson said, might include something like a post-secondary readiness indicator such as the completion of advanced coursework.

ESSA will also allow the state to provide more-customized support to struggling schools, she said. If the state talks to districts and discovers that there’s a significant need for leadership development, for example, Atkinson says ESSA will allow her department to provide a targeted response.

Under the new law, it will be easier for Wisconsin to collaborate with districts “rather than dictating to them,” Evers said.

They also addressed the issue of teacher evaluations. ESSA does not allow any federal role in determining states’ teacher-evaluation systems. So do the chiefs think there will be efforts in many states to overturn relatively new teacher evaluations, many of which use student test scores? And do they think a review of their evaluations is needed?

In general, the chiefs answered no to both of those questions. While Atkinson allowed that some minor adjustments to North Carolina’s system might be warranted in the coming years, she also stressed that her state’s system was designed with teachers not to be “punitive.”

“We absolutely intend to stay the course,” Skandera said of New Mexico, which is currently dealing with not one but two lawsuits filed by teachers’ unions over its evaluation system.

Need a comprehensive overview of the Every Student Success Act? Click here.

Photo: The Every Student Succeeds Act awaits President Barack Obama’s signature before the official ceremony on Dec. 10 in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP