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Accountability

The Feds Offered Waivers on ESSA Accountability. Here’s Where States Stand on Getting Them

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 24, 2021 5 min read
Image of a student taking a test with a mask on.

When the U.S. Department of Education said in February that states could get waivers from parts of federal education law, much of the attention focused on the agency’s statement that it would not grant blanket waivers from standardized testing.

What got much less attention was the department’s decision to entertain waiver requests from the Every Student Succeeds Act’s requirements governing school and district accountability for the 2020-21 school year.

The Education Department’s position on standardized testing has proven to be a little more complex than many might have anticipated. But in the meantime, the majority of states have sought and received accountability waivers to account for the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented disruption to K-12.

Generally speaking, these waivers mean relief from requirements that state and local officials identify and develop interventions for certain low-performing schools, such as those with relatively low graduation rates. But not all states have received them.

As of this week, the Education Department’s website indicates that 41 states, the Bureau of Indian Education, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have received waivers using a template released by the Education Department in early March for relief from certain accountability mandates.

In addition, Louisiana and Tennessee said they have submitted addenda that include changes for their ESSA accountability plans. Both states indicated they haven’t heard back from the feds about their proposed changes.

In a handful of cases, however, states have said that they are still thinking things over or don’t yet have the flexibility they’ve sought.

The Arkansas department of education said it has yet to apply for a waiver, although the state is still considering it. “Arkansas is in consultation with the U.S. Department of Education and will utilize data to make final decisions regarding a waiver, addendum, and/or revisions,” Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an email.

New Hampshire’s education department said it decided to wait to determine “what was necessary” after the end of its testing window on June 18, instead of “preemptively” seeking a waiver. The state also said it will “likely” require a waiver.

A spokeswoman for the Kansas education department, Denise Kahler, said the state submitted a waiver request on June 15. A spokesman for the Rhode Island education department, Victor Morente, said it submitted a waiver request on June 4. And Idaho will submit its waiver application in the near future, according to Mary McFarland of the state education department.

The Education Department approved Wyoming’s addendum to its accountability plan on June 9. The Iowa education department did not respond to requests for comment about the state’s waiver status.

States follow their own paths on accountability

States use their own accountability systems separate from the Every Student Succeeds Act mandates to rate schools and make decisions about resources.

In a Feb. 1 letter discussing Louisiana’s approach for the 2020-21 school year—sent before the Biden administration’s decisions about accountability and assessment waivers—state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said the state had waived its typical requirements for how student assessment data must inform evaluations of teachers.

Brumley also noted that state lawmakers had taken steps to ensure that 2020-21 performance data from schools “are not unfairly attributed to schools and school systems in extraordinary circumstances.”

Louisiana’s addendum to its ESSA accountability plan says it won’t label schools as requiring comprehensive intervention this coming fall based on the typical timeline, unless the state “receives notification from the superintendent of that school that they elected to be identified as [needing it].”

Louisiana isn’t seeking the same flexibility as other states, however. For example, its proposed changes don’t appear to include a request for a delay in measuring progress toward long-term academic goals required by ESSA.

Tennessee submitted proposed changes to its ESSA plan on June 9. Tennessee’s education department noted similar relief from state accountability requirements that Volunteer State lawmakers granted earlier this year.

The planning process for schools may get delayed

Flexibility at the state level, separate from federal mandates, is important for schools. But what are the practical implications for states that don’t have federal accountability waivers just yet?

If nothing else, states that are waiting on the feds for a decision, or still deciding whether to seek flexibility, are pushing back the process by which schools identified as needing some kind of intervention determine what strategies and resources they’ll need, said Terra Wallin, the associate director for P‑12 accountability at the Education Trust.

“The ability to implement interventions in a meaningful way becomes harder and harder the longer you wait to do this,” Wallin said.

In general, there’s been significant concern about the quality of data schools, districts, and states typically use for federal accountability purposes. As a result, “Most states have already made the decision that there are going to be things in the data where they don’t feel comfortable using it for accountability” and have therefore sought broad waivers, Wallin said.

Yet states aren’t off the hook when it comes to publicly reporting certain data, such as information about chronic absenteeism, from the 2020-21 school year. Wallin also said she’ll be watching to see whether, in the months ahead, any states that don’t receive accountability waivers from Washington nevertheless act like they got them, and how federal officials will respond if that happens.

In addition, she said it’s worth watching states to see if they seek narrower waivers from accountability mandates in the future as they try to ease back into typical, annual ESSA requirements, or amend their ESSA plans down the road.

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