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States May Get More Control Over Accountability. What Will They Do With It?

By Alyson Klein — November 03, 2015 5 min read
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If Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and gives states way more control over their own accountability systems, what will they do with it?

Pretty much the same thing they have been doing for the past four years, says a report released Tuesday by the Council of Chief State School Officers. More specifically: States will continue crafting and implementing accountability systems that build on nine basic principles outlined by state education leaders way back in 2011.

The report was released to coincide with an event at the Center for American Progress on accountability.

The report comes as staffers to all four major federal lawmakers on education—Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. as well as Reps. John Kline, R-Minn. and Bobby Scott, D-Va., are burning the midnight oil on a compromise bill to reauthorize ESEA that seeks to restore serious authority over K-12 policies to states. More on where all that work stands here.

A big issue that remains unresolved: How much control should states get over their accountability systems? How much federal oversight should there be? And how would that impact “subgroup students” who the current version of the ESEA, the outdated No Child Left Behind Act, was designed to help? More on that here.

CCSSO’s subtle message seems to be: “Trust us.” States have been working on building high-quality accountability systems for years, the report says. And they aren’t going to let up just because the feds stop making them do certain things.

UPDATE: During the CAP event, two state chiefs, Mississippi’s Carey Wright and Alabama’s Tommy Bice, amplified that message. They argued that waivers allowed them to take real ownership of their accountability systems. Now they can measure student growth and look at factors beyond just test scores, including AP course-taking.

And they made it clear that they’re not about to drop the ball on ensuring schools make progress with students who are struggling, no matter how much new leeway they get from the federal government.

“Behind every data point is a face. ... I can’t imagine looking at data and then saying “okay” and moving on,” Wright said. “We’ve gotta take action.”

But just dealing with the lowest performing schools in a state is not enough, said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at The Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority kids. States need to make sure that they pay attention to schools that are doing well overall, but not necessarily making great progress with traditionally overlooked groups of kids, according to Hall.

That’s something, she said, that’s not as clear as it could be in the Obama administration’s waivers, which asked states to focus primarily on the bottom five percent of schools, plus another ten percent of schools with big achievement gaps.

But most low-income students and minority students aren’t in the lowest performing schools, she said.

“Students of color are in schools that are doing okay overall but not for those groups of kids,” Hall said. “We need to be having a conversation about what support structures for all those students should look like.”

So what are states already doing on accountability?

“Regardless of this uncertainty at the federal level, state education leaders remain firmly committed to state accountability systems that support educators, parents, and students,” CCSSO wrote in its report.

The CCSSO report offers a refresher course of sorts on the basic tenets of accountability systems that CCSSO released a few months before the Obama administration rolled out waivers from the mandates of the current version of the ESEA law—the much maligned NCLB.

State chiefs promised to build systems that identified achievement gaps and worked to close them; provided timely information on outcomes to students, parents, and educators; gave flailing schools the most attention and support; and allowed systems to evolve and grow overtime.

More specifically, over 40 states pledged to:

  • Align goals to college-and-career-ready standards,
  • Provide some sort of annual rating or determination for each school and district,
  • Focus on student outcomes,
  • Disaggregate data,
  • Provide timely reporting of student results,
  • Do deeper diagnostic reviews of schools and their issues,
  • Build school and district capacity,
  • Put a lot of effort into targeting the lowest performing schools, and
  • Push for innovation and continuous improvement.

And states are on it, CCSSO says. For instance:

  • New Mexico has cooked up an accountability system that takes into account factors beyond just test scores and graduation rates, including participation in college entrance exams and dual credit coursework.
  • Minnesota provides its districts with individual reports showing how close they are to the statewide goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.
  • Arkansas has revamped its accountability system to do deeper assessments of troubled schools.
  • Oregon works with its districts to set their own goals for student achievement.
  • New Hampshire is experimenting with a new, locally developed performance assessment system that it may eventually take statewide.
  • Maryland is tailoring support to low-performing schools through a statewide technical assistance hub, The Breakthrough Center.

To be sure, a lot of that work, particularly things like focusing on the bottom 5 percent of schools and adopting standards that prepare students for higher education and the workforce have been encouraged (okay, pretty much required) through the Obama administration’s waivers.

So what happens if that pressure is gone? After all, CCSSO—along with just about every edu-alphabet soup association on the planet—has been urging Congress to reauthorize ESEA and give them some sense of certainty about where the feds will be on accountability for the foreseeable future.

And even if reauthorization stalls yet again, the next president may very well ditch the waivers and go off in an entirely new accountability direction. But CCSSO says states will stick with these policies anyway, even if waivers go away.

“State chiefs will continue to lead and remain firmly committed to strong accountability aligned to the principles,” the report says.

More on how states are already experimenting with new forms of accountability, with an assist from CCSSO, in this story.