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Every Student Succeeds Act

Trump Team Hurries to Soothe States Worried About ESSA

By Alyson Klein — June 18, 2017 4 min read
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The Trump administration is under pressure to explain its extensive early feedback on state plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, and it appears to be responding.

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement Friday that the feedback letters “raised some concerns” among his members. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ESSA architect and an ally of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, said last week he’d be taking a close look at the feedback.

The U.S. Department of Education responded to these concerns at the end of last week, publishing a list of Frequently Asked Questions that seeks to explain exactly what its letters to three states—the first feedback states have gotten from the Trump team on ESSA—actually meant when it comes to DeVos’ approach to the law.

The document may not clear up every question states and others may have, however. More on that below.

First, one key point: The FAQ is clear that states don’t have to make changes to their proposals in response to feedback from the department and peer reviewers who read the plans. They can submit them as is, and see if they get approved, or not.

“This initial feedback is not an approval or denial of a State plan; however, a State is still required to submit a plan that complies with all statutory requirements. Each State then has the opportunity to revise, further describe, add information and/or make changes and resubmit its plan; however, no State is required to do so,” the FAQ says.

The new FAQ also notes that it will be up to states to come up with their own definitions of technical, but important, terms that aren’t explained in the law. These include what it means for academic goals to be “ambitious” or for certain indicators to carry “substantial” weight.

But it says the “the Secretary is obligated to make a determination as to whether a State’s proposed definition, on its face, is reasonable.”

That clarification matters, especially when it comes to ambitious goals. That’s because Minnich and others in Washington were particularly miffed that the department’s feedback letter to Delaware, in particular, questioned whether the state’s student achievement goals were sufficiently “ambitious.” That’s despite language in ESSA clearly prohibiting the secretary from telling states what their goals can or can’t be.

Minnich’s statement also questioned the department’s interpretation of two other parts of Delaware’s plan, dealing with restrictions on the use of science and social studies tests as academic indicators, and whether states can use Advanced Placement tests to determine if students are ready for college or career.

It’s also matters that Alexander said he was reviewing DeVos’ feedback letters, which so far have been sent to Delaware, New Mexico, and Nevada. The Senate education committee chairman helped DeVos narrowly win Senate approval after a rocky confirmation hearing, and his staff has been lending the department a hand with ESSA implementation.

When ESSA was under development, Alexander was the biggest champion of limiting the department’s power to tell states how to hold their schools accountable. And he said earlier this year that he expected DeVos would greenlight every state’s plan.

So what exactly does the new FAQ mean for states?

It’s tough to say for sure. The language on goals could suggest that Delaware and other states may just have to provide the feds with documentation explaining why they think their goals are “ambitious.” But they can still use whatever goals they think make sense.

The FAQ document doesn’t directly address some other big questions raised by Delaware’s letter, however. It’s still unclear whether DeVos and Company—who have sole discretion on whether to give a thumbs up or down on a state’s plan—will allow Delaware, or any other state, to include social studies and science as academic indicators, in the same way as reading and math.

And it’s unclear whether Delaware, or any other state, can give districts a range of choices to demonstrate college- and career-readiness.

Delaware had wanted to give its districts a variety of options for proving their students are ready for the challenges of postsecondary education. Under Delaware’s proposal, districts could use scores on Advanced Placement tests, scores on International Baccalaureate tests, the SAT, or dual-enrollment course grades to meet that requirement. The department, though, indicated to Delaware in its feedback letter that the proposal may not pass muster, because not all schools offer AP or IB classes, and it’s unclear whether a “significant percentage” of kids take the tests.

The issue doesn’t only apply to Delaware. At least a dozen states have written AP or IB tests into their plans.

But from reading the FAQ, it’s difficult to tell whether DeVos would reject Delaware—and other states—for trying to use a range of indicators to demonstrate college-and-career readiness. It’s possible states simply need to provide the department with more information to show that the different indicators can be compared to one another.

In fact, some former Obama administration officials were scratching their heads over the FAQ. They say the department needs to be much more specific.

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