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Trump Ed. Dept. Gives ESSA Feedback to Five More States

By Alyson Klein — June 30, 2017 5 min read
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Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon, and Tennessee got preliminary feedback Friday from the U.S. Department of Education on their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, which must be approved by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The department’s initial ESSA feedback letters—to Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico—sparked wonky outrage, including from state advocates who felt the department had overstepped its bounds. Some of the department’s comments to Delaware—especially on academic goals and measuring college and career readiness—seemed like a sharp departure from DeVos’ rhetoric, which put a big emphasis on local control and rolling back the federal footprint on K-12.

So will this round of feedback give fans of local control another case of heartburn? From our quick review, that seems less likely. (But we’ve reached out to some state advocates for their take.) Noteably, though, the department isn’t questioning whether any state has set “ambitious” goals, as it did with Delaware’s plan. And it doesn’t seem to have a problem with the way Louisiana and Tennessee have relied on Advanced Placement and dual enrollment to determine school ratings, even though that too, was an issue for Delaware. Scroll down for more detail.

The biggest things to watch: It looks like Tennesee is being discouraged from using so-called “super sub-groups” which combine different groups of kids—such as Hispanics, students in special education, and English-language learners—for accountability purposes. More background below. Also, check out New Jersey and test participation.

We read the feedback letters so you don’t have to. Here’s your rundown:


Connecticut can’t use scores on science tests in the same way it uses reading and math tests to gauge student achievement, the feedback letter says. Delaware was told something similar, and this issue has irked advocates for science teachers. So is this another case of the Education Department going beyond the law? Maybe not. According to page 17 of this FAQ written during the Obama era, states are allowed to incorporate science and social studies into their accountability systems, just not as part of academic achievement. Louisiana and Tennessee received a similar reminder.

The state needs to set goals for student’s academic achievement (how many students are reaching proficiency), not just growth (how students are progressing).

The state doesn’t include a measure to show whether English-language learners are mastering their new language, an ESSA must.


The state needs to come up with some sort of measurement of school quality or student success for elementary schools that meets the timeline laid out in the law. Louisiana’s new “interests and opportunity” indicator, which looks at whether kids are getting access to the arts, foreign language, technology, and more, won’t be ready in time.

The state needs to better explain how it will decide when a low-performing school is no longer considered low-performing.

The state got feedback similar to Connecticut’s on using social studies and science test scores to rate schools.

New Jersey

The state needs to make sure it is looking at the progress of English-learners in mastering the language when deciding which schools are low-performing and which schools need extra help with traditionally overlooked subgroups of students.

New Jersey says schools won’t be counted as low-performing when they no longer meet the criteria for “comprehensive support” outlined in ESSA (that includes being among the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state). The department says that’s not nearly specific enough and that the state needs to set expectations for continued progress.

And the department seems fine with the way New Jersey is handling schools where a lot of parents choose not to participate in standardized tests. New Jersey, which has a big problem with testing opt-outs, just wants to note on a school’s report card when test participation dips below 95 percent. That doesn’t go nearly as far as other states in combating opt-outs. (We’ve got a comparison here.) But the department didn’t flag that issue in New Jersey’s feedback, so presumably, the Garden State is good to go.


The state wants to identity low-performing schools and schools where poor and minority students aren’t progressing every four or five years. That’s not kosher under ESSA, which calls for the lowest performing 5 percent schools to be singled out every three years, and schools with low-performing subgroups to be flagged every year.

Oregon needs to do a better job of explaining how it will make sure disadvantaged kids and minorities are getting their fair share of effective teachers.

The state also needs to give the feds more information about how it will serve migrant kids who have dropped out of school.


Tennessee also wants to make science a part of its accountability system, so the department reminded the state it can’t use science in the same way it uses reading and math. (Louisiana and Delaware got similar feedback.)

Tennessee needs to provide more information about how graduation rates figure into school ratings.

The state got dinged for its use of super-subgroups, which in Tennessee’s case combine black, Hispanic, and Native American kids together for accountability purposes. The department says each group must also count, separately, somehow, toward a schools rating.

Quick background on super-subgroups: Civil rights groups hate these super-subgroups because they mask achievement gaps. Lawmakers who wrote ESSA say they are a no-no under the new law. But some state chiefs aren’t so sure, and policy analysts say the legislative language is fuzzy on this one. The department seems to think they’re not OK, at least not in the way Tennessee is proposing to use them. The department may be sending some mixed messages here, though. New Mexico is also interested in using super-subgroups, but the department didn’t have anything to say about that.

Here’s a snippet from a statement from Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s state commissioner on the department’s feedback: “We have always welcomed feedback that will make our plan stronger, and we will be working to provide additional clarity as needed to ensure our plan is in line with what ESSA requires.”

Reminder: The department has 120 days from when plans are considered complete to give states a yay or nay on their proposals. Most states are waiting until a second deadline Sept. 18 to file their ESSA proposals with the feds.

Want more ESSA explanation? We’ve got a quick-and-dirty look at state plans here. Just need to better understand the law? We’ve got you covered in this video.

Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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