Under ESSA, an End to the ‘Narrowing of the Curriculum’?

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 23, 2017 3 min read
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Almost from the day in 2002 that the ink dried on the No Child Left Behind Act, educators worried whether putting so much emphasis on English/language arts and math tests would crowd out all the others, like history, P.E., music, and art.

And over the next 13 years, they offered literally thousands of anecdotes of schools that reduced time spent on other subjects: by double-blocking reading and math classes, and by turning art and music into electives, rather than giving students a steady dose.

It’s actually less clear whether this happened systematically across the country, or only in certain places. (There’s some data indicating it was more prevalent at the elementary school level than at the high school level.)

But now under the Every Student Succeeds Act—at least as it’s written—states have a lot more leeway to use additional content-area indicators in their accountability plans. They can choose more than math and reading exams to determine academic achievement, and they have to add “school quality” indicators that get at non-academic factors impacting school climate.

My look at states’ plans shows that at least four out of the 17 that have submitted explicitly want to incorporate subjects other than math and ELA into either their academic- or school quality indicators.

Of course, it remains to be seen about how these new indicators might affect curricular “real estate” in schools and broaden the teaching of physical fitness, the arts, social studies, and science. Most of the states aren’t weighing these more than a few percentage points. But it’s definitely worth following. Now, let’s dig in:

Connecticut: As part of its school-quality indicators, Connecticut wants to measure arts access and physical fitness, which together will account for 7.4 percent of each school’s rating. For P.E., the state would track students meeting or exceeding a benchmark on all four areas of the Connecticut Physical Fitness Assessment, which measures muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness in grades 4, 6, 8, and once in high school.

For arts access, the state plans to measure the extent to which students in high school participate in at least one dance, theater, music, or visual arts course in the school year.

Illinois: All states have to test students at least three times in science as they progress through school, but they don’t have to count the results for anything. Now, Illinois says it will start working the results into its academic indicators, though they would only count for 5 percent of a school’s overall rating.

And, as part of its school quality measure, Illinois plans to include a “fine arts indicator,” based on participation of students in fine arts courses. But for the first four years under ESSA, this indicator wouldn’t be weighted. Instead, the state will look at the data and use it to refine the indicator.

Vermont: Vermont’s additional subject areas show up in its school quality indicator. The state explicitly frames this as pushing back on curriculum narrowing: “we remind all schools of the value that we place on all subjects and hope to avoid an over-narrowing of instruction to only literacy and mathematics,” officials wrote in the plan.

Science is one of the new subjects to be included. And the state’s looking for a vendor to help measure physical education progress. It proposes measuring the percentage of students who fall within a Presidential Youth Fitness Program-aligned “healthy zone,” or possibly the percentage of students who are assessed as making sufficient progress towards that zone.

Delaware: Delaware wants to work its science-test results into its academic indicators. It also appears to be the only state that plans to consider proficiency in social studies as part of its school grades. In Delaware, students are assessed at grades 4, 7, and in high school in social studies.

However, there’s a big asterisk with respect to Delaware, because the U.S. Department of Education has put the state on alert that it doesn’t like its plan to use some of these additional subjects. How this will be resolved, and whether it will affect the other states’ plans, remains to be seen.

State officials and other policy geeks: Did I miss something in the other plans? Email me to let me know. In the meantime, if you’re wondering where you can track some of the other features in states’ plans? We’ve got you covered, thanks to Politics K-12’s wonderful ESSA tracker.

For more on curriculum narrowing:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.