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Trump Ed. Dept. Wants Improvements to ESSA Plans for California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Two Other States

By Alyson Klein — December 22, 2017 4 min read
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Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas need to make some big improvements to their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to letters released publicly Friday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The most important letter is probably California’s. It’s a huge population center, and its plan, which relies on a dashboard to track school accountability, is either one of the most innovative and holistic in the country or one of squishiest and most confusing, depending on who you talk to.

The feds gave the Golden State a long, long list of things to fix. For one thing, the department says, it’s not at all clear from California’s plan that academic factors (like test scores) will count for more than school quality factors (like discipline data), an ESSA requirement. California wants to handle schools with low test participation by simply noting the problem on the state’s dashboard. The feds aren’t sure that meets the law’s requirements. And California told the department that it plans to finalize its method for identifying the lowest-performing schools in the state in January of 2018. The feds say they need it explained before they can greenlight California’s plan.

California also doesn’t have clear “interim” or short-term goals for English-language proficiency. It’s also unclear how the state will calculate suspension rates, which California wants to use to gauge school quality and student success. The state also needs to better spell out how it will make sure disadvantaged children get access to their fair share of effective teachers.

California has a long history of bucking the department. The state faced off with the Obama administration on student data systems, teacher evaluation, and more. So it will be interesting to see how many of these changes California makes—and whether the state will be approved even it doesn’t significantly revise its plan. A number of states that turned in their plans this spring didn’t make changes the department asked for—and got the stamp of approval anyway.

What do the letters to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas say? Here’s a quick rundown. Click on the state’s name to read the letter.

Arkansas: Arkansas doesn’t have a separate indicator for English-language proficiency, an ESSA no-no, according to the department. The state also needs to do some work, on its academic achievement long-term goals. And the state needs to do a better job of explaining how it will make sure disadvantaged students have access to their fair share of qualified teachers.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma wants to include an “all remaining students subgroup,” which would combine a number of different racial groups for accountability purposes. That’s not kosher under ESSA. And the state doesn’t appear to have an indicator of English-language proficiency, an ESSA must. Oklahoma also needs to be more clear about how it will calculate academic achievement. (The state outlines two different possibilities for doing this, and both appear to raise questions with the feds.) Oklahoma also may need to change the way it considers alternative diplomas for students in special education in calculating graduation rates. And the state needs to be more specific about how it will come up with more serious interventions for schools that struggle to make progress, even after years of help from their districts

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania needs to make changes to how and when the performance of English-language learners will be included in its system, the department says. It’s not clear from Pennsylvania’s application that academic factors (like test scores) will carry much greater weight than nonacademic factors (like college readiness). The state also needs to more fully describe its method for identifying the bottom 5 percent of performers. And Pennsylvania needs to do a better job of explaining how it will make sure that disadvantaged students get their fair share of effective teachers.

Texas: Texas wants to exclude the test results of English-language learners for two years or less, and to keep some asylee/refugee students from being counted toward a school’s overall rating. The department says that’s not OK. The state’s graduation rate goals also don’t expect progress from every subgroup. (The goals have white students dipping in performance.) Texas will have to rework them, according to the department. Texas will also need to make changes to the way test participation figures into school ratings, the department says. And the Lone Star State can’t include science, social studies, and writing in its academic achievement indicator. (It will have to move them elsewhere in its accountability system.) It’s also unclear whether a school’s grade will be based on all of the indicators required under ESSA (test scores, graduation rates, English-language proficiency, and a school quality indicator). And it’s unclear if Texas is counting academic factors (like test scores) more than school quality factors (like college readiness). Texas also needs to spell out how it will make sure disadvantaged students get access to their fair share of highly qualified teachers.

For those keeping score at home: Thirty-four states turned in their ESSA plan this fall, and the department has sent feedback letters to at least 30 of them. Another 16 states and the District of Columbia submitted them in the spring. Of those, all have been approved except Colorado, which asked for extra time to make improvements. You can check out the letters here.

EdWeek has some great tools for understanding and tracking ESSA plans here.

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