Every Student Succeeds Act

States Gaining a Say on School Accountability

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — August 18, 2015 9 min read
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Whether a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act makes it over the finish line this year, the federally driven accountability system at the heart of the law seems destined to go the way of the Blockbuster video.

The Obama administration has already opened the door to major flexibility by issuing waivers from the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

And now, a pair of ESEA rewrite bills headed to conference in Congress would give states acres of new running room when it comes to setting student achievement goals, figuring out how much tests matter, evaluating teachers, and more.

Even if those bills aren’t finished by the time President Barack Obama leaves office, presidential candidates in both political parties have either embraced the general direction of the legislation or demanded even more flexibility for states.

If states do win new freedom, what will they do with it? And will the new systems they build be better than the current ones, or will they leave poor and minority students behind?

Some state chiefs are chomping at the bit for greater control, and the chance to experiment with new approaches.

“You’re not going to get innovation on these things unless you allow states to be laboratories of policy change,” said John White, the Louisiana state superintendent of education.

If the new federal law blesses a state-driven approach, White is interested in giving schools double credit for helping students with disabilities make progress, something he hasn’t gotten permission to do under waivers.

Others aren’t so optimistic that new federal freedom will produce good results.

“I don’t think there’s any basis to say there’s going to be a lot of people choosing rigorous accountability,” said Sandy Kress, who helped write the NCLB law during President George W. Bush’s first term in office.

The law, passed in 2002, capitalized on growing attention to accountability at the state level. But Kress doesn’t see that same attention now.

“It’s being chosen less and less on its own, particularly without the federal pressure to do it,” he said.

Holding the Line

The Obama administration shares those concerns, and has made it clear that it wants strong language on accountability in the final version of the ESEA update.

Shifting Landscape

The federal government got involved in accountability in a big way in 2002, with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Obama administration changed the game in key areas, and House and Senate legislation to rewrite the law—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—would do so as well.

No Child Left Behind Act
The law called for states to develop challenging academic standards and test their students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Schools that missed annual achievement targets—either for all their students, or for a particular group of children, such as English-language learners—faced increasingly serious sanctions. The law’s ultimate goal was to bring every student to the “proficient” level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year, but in practice, no state got all its students over that bar.

NCLB Waivers
In 2011, the Obama administration allowed states to get out from under many of the mandates of the NCLB law–including the 2013-14 proficiency deadline—as long as they embraced the administration’s education redesign priorities. Among those: teacher evaluation through test scores, higher standards, and dramatic school turnarounds for the lowest-achieving 5 percent of “priority” schools, plus interventions for another 10 percent of “focus” schools. Right now, 42 states and the District of Columbia have waivers.

Pending ESEA Reauthorization
Under both House and Senate bills, states would have to stick with the NCLB law’s testing schedule. But they could decide how much weight to give those tests in gauging school performance and could set their own goals for student achievement. There would be no requirement that states identify a certain percentage of schools as low-performing, or use any specific turnaround techniques. Both bills would also open the door to some sort of local assessment, although the House bill goes further than the Senate measure.

For instance, the White House would like to see a final bill require states to single out 5 percent of their schools as low-performing and take the lead in fixing them, like waiver states must do now.

But even if the administration is successful in beefing up protections for struggling students, it’s unclear how much those changes will influence some emerging state systems.

California, for example, is already designing a new accountability system that would give districts broad leeway in how they hold their schools accountable. The draft plan is silent on how the state would have to identify and help low-performing schools.

That’s a conscious choice, said Keric Ashley, the deputy superintendent.

“I don’t think California cares about identifying the lowest 5 percent [of schools] in our state,” he said. “That’s a federal rule that may continue under ESEA [reauthorization],” and the state will comply, “but that’s not going to drive the system we create.”

The picture of a state-driven, post-NCLB, post-waivers accountability era is still emerging, and may not come into focus for another four or five years, as states revisit their laws and regulations in the wake of new flexibility, experts say.

Still, waiver applications, trends, and interviews with state chiefs themselves offer clues to what the future may hold.

Some states are beginning to experiment with accountability systems that they say present a more holistic approach to teaching and learning, taking into account noncognitive factors such as “grit,” and substituting performance tasks for traditional tests.

States are also moving toward systems that embrace a broader definition of what it means to be “college- and career ready.” They’re using factors like Advanced Placement participation and dual enrollment, or giving schools credit for career certification.

In some states, not much may change, at least not right away. Chiefs in Minnesota and New Mexico said that, by and large, they’re happy with the accountability and teacher effectiveness systems they’ve developed under waivers.

“We would probably just keep our accountability system the way that it is,” said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner. The legislature may tinker with the state’s teacher-evaluation system, which calls for test scores to make up 35 percent of a teacher’s overall rating, Cassellius said, but she doesn’t envision dropping the test-score requirement altogether.

Minnesota may not be alone there. Thirty-nine states have some sort of teacher-evaluation policy on the books, either in law or regulation, that requires student outcomes to be part of the picture, according to an analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group. That’s not easy to undo immediately, said NCTQ Vice President Sandi Jacobs.

And Minnesota is not backing away from its waiver goal: cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.

Asserting Local Control

But in other places, “local control” has become a hot concept, as states push for districts to play a greater role in fashioning their accountability systems.

That idea appeals to Richard Woods, a Republican who was elected in 2014 as Georgia’s state schools chief.

Although Woods will have to work with his state legislature and board on many accountability changes, he’d like to consider moving away from a single statewide goal for student achievement.

That’s something that all states must have under both NCLB and the waivers, but Woods isn’t sure it makes sense for a state as diverse as Georgia.

“With Georgia being such a large state, you may have a school district that has a large multi-language population,” and wants to structure its goals around those students, he said. California, meanwhile, is already walking down that road. The Golden State is crafting a new, locally driven accountability system, slated to take effect in the 2016-17 school year.

The plan features locally developed goals aimed at continuous improvement for all students, and a greater reliance on factors such as school climate and community engagement, with a smaller supporting role for standardized state tests.

But Chad Aldeman, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, cautioned against such an approach, saying it would be virtually impossible for any outsider to make heads or tails of student achievement data.

“It’s very hard to quantify or measure what progress looks like if every district gets to choose what it looks like,” said Aldeman, who is now an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting group.

Pushing Boundaries

California is also one of a dozen states in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovation Lab Network, which are working on their own version of Accountability 3.0.

Outlined in a report released last year by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, among others, the innovation-lab states’ vision includes experimenting with non-academic factors such as social and emotional learning, a more individualized approach to teaching and learning, and mixing traditional standardized assessments with performance tasks.

States are already beginning to test-drive some of those concepts under the Obama administration’s waiver program.

A cadre of California districts that won the only district-level waiver have incorporated concepts like “grit” into their accountability system, an idea that has caught the interest of other states, including Idaho.

And earlier this year, New Hampshire got the green light to try out performance assessments with a handful of districts, developed locally with help from the state. State tests will still be a factor, but they won’t be given in every grade. Instead, the exams from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will serve as a check on district efforts. New Hampshire aims to take this new assessment approach statewide eventually.

And, as in California, there’s an emphasis on empowering districts.

“We don’t believe as strongly in an external accountability,” said Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy commissioner of education. “We believe more strongly in a co-responsibility model. Districts and schools come up with a theory of action on student learning and figure out how they are going to hold themselves accountable and assess their progress.” The state’s job will be to make sure “there’s truth in what’s going on at the local level” and that students are being held to the same high standards, Leather said.

Representatives from all over the country have visited New Hampshire to learn about its system, and Colorado has already signaled to the federal Education Department that it wants to work on something similar.

The shift from annual statewide, standardized tests would be made easier under both pieces of ESEA reauthorization legislation making their way through Congress, since each opens the door to more local testing.

But states will keep moving forward on this work, no matter what happens on Capitol Hill this fall, said Jennifer Davis Poon, the director of the Innovation Lab Network.

Writing the testing flexibility into a new law, however, would offer states important security, since “they’d know that the system they’re building is the one system they need to run,” she said.

States including Louisiana have expressed interest in giving schools credit for helping students secure career certification, instead of focusing only on high school diplomas.

Already, nearly two dozen states are using waivers to incorporate “college- and career- ready indicators,” such as the number of students taking Advanced Placement or dual- enrollment courses, into their accountability systems.

And states are increasingly relying on college-entrance exams for accountability purposes, in part, state officials in some places said, to cut down on the number of tests that high school juniors must take.

Right now at least three states use the ACT for accountability and another two states—New Hampshire and Connecticut—have won permission to do so.

“In four years or five years, I think we’re going to see the whole understanding of accountability evolve,” said Deborah Delisle, a former Ohio State chief who until recently served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, where she oversaw the waiver program. Delisle, who is now the CEO of the professional-development group ASCD, is especially intrigued by states that are shooting for what she called “holistic systems” that capture “higher-order thinking skills” that can’t be measured by a simple test score. She cautioned, however, that it won’t be easy to navigate that transition.

“I do hope that people will be very thoughtful and not just adopt a model from another school district because it sounds great on paper,” she said.


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