By Andrew Ujifusa and Alyson Klein
It’s been close to two weeks since the U.S. Department of Education released proposed regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act that would govern school accountability. We’ve touched on several high-profile issues in the draft rules since they were made public, including their requirement for a single overall rating for schools and the tricky shift to ESSA that some schools might face in 2016-17.
But below, you can find several of the most important issues in a straightforward, “cheat sheet” format. We’ve organized the material into three categories:
• What ESSA says about the issue in statutory language;
• How the proposed ESSA regulations would handle the issue, and;
• Some of the reaction to the proposed regulations. (We included this where it was relevant—not every area has gotten serious pushback or praise at this early stage.)
Let us know if you think we’ve missed any major issues in the comments section, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. You have until Aug. 1 to submit your comments to the department about these proposed rules. They’re expected to be finalized at some point after that later this year.
Overall School Rating
• What ESSA Says: ESSA does not explicitly require states to apply an overall rating to each school in their accountability plans.
• What the Draft Rules Say: The regulations require a “summative” rating for each school. States have to have at least three categories of summative ratings. The rating can take the form of a number (say on a scale of 1 to 100), an A through F grade, or it could just be a category (say, “needs improvement”, “satisfactory”, or “excellent.”) Plus, states need to make publicly available any data that informs the overall summative rating. If schools are calculating the rating based on growth, achievement, and school climate, for example, they need to publish that data for parents, alongside the overall score.
• The Reaction: Supporters of such a comprehensive rating for schools say the proposal is consistent with the intent of ESSA to provide clear information to educators, parents, and others. Some, however, are concerned that it could undermine alternative methods of school accountability, such as “dashboards” that provide information about various indicators, but don’t place a single rating on schools.
• What ESSA Says: States are still required to test all students annually in English/language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But states are allowed to set consequences for schools that don’t meet the 95 percent participation threshold. States could also have laws explicitly allowing parents to opt their children out of tests.
• What the Draft Rules Say: States must choose one of three sanctions for schools that miss the threshold, such as giving schools the lowest rating on their academic achievement indicators or knocking down their overall ratings. Or else states can submit their own plans for dealing with test-participation problems.
• The Reaction: Fans of annual standardized tests say the proposal is appropriate and highlights how important these tests are. However, those friendly to the testing opt-out movement argue the plan is too prescriptive and that states would not get the flexibility they think the law contains when it comes to dealing with high opt-out rates. (If you’re thinking the legal environment for opt-out seems complicated or unclear right now, you’re not alone.) AFT President Randi Weingarten is among those critical of the proposed rules here, saying they’re too punitive.
• What ESSA Says: States must create an accountability system that relies on both academic indicators like test scores, graduation rates, and English-language proficiency, plus at least one indicator of school quality or student success, which could be teacher engagement, student engagmement, school climate, or anything else the state cooks up that’s subject to federal approval of their accountability plans. Each of these indicators must carry “substantial” weight. And the academic indicators, as a group, must be given a weight “much greater” than the school-quality or student-success indicator.
• What the Draft Rules Say: The proposed regulations don’t define what “much greater” means or give any sense of what would be an appropriate weight for each indicator. They do say, however, that the academic indicators need to give equal weight to math and reading. And they say that the school-quality indicator should be something that research shows will contribute to student achievement or boost graduation rates. (There’s research to back up indicators like access to the arts, or science and social studies classes, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. said in a recent interview with Education Week.)
Also, the school-quality indicator should be something that shows real differentiation from one school to another. For example, the department is discouraging states from using average daily attendance; it says there’s simply not enough variation from school to school, which means it’s harder to tell which schools need closer attention and support. Also, importantly, just as with the summative rating, states need to come up with at least three performance levels for each indicator. That means if a state picks, say, teacher engagement, it needs to figure out what it means for a school to have at least high, low, and medium teacher engagement. (States could come up with more than three levels, if they want.)
•The Reaction: Mike Petrilli, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, thinks the department is attaching too many strings to the school quality indicator. Check out his post here.
Subgroups of Students and ‘N’ Sizes
• What ESSA Says: States need to consider the performance of each subgroup of students (that’s English-language learners, racial minorities, students in special education, and disadvantaged kids) seperately, no combining of subgroups into “super subgroups.” Also, states need to set an “n” size, meaning the minimum number of students in a particular group that a school must have in order for that group to count for accountability purposes. The state gets to pick the “n” size it wants—the department doesn’t get to require any particular number. (The thinking behind an “n” size: If a school of 5,000 students only has one English-language learner, it might violate that student’s privacy to report the data separately from everyone else’s.)
• What the Draft Rules Say: The regulations make it crystal clear that super subgroups that combine different groups of students for accountability purposes are prohibited. That’s not new, but it shows the department is serious about this issue, even though it allowed super subgroups in waivers from the previous version of the law, No Child Left Behind. The department says that states that want an “n” size of more than 30 had better be able to justify it. (Under NCLB, state “n” sizes ranged from as small as five to as large as 50. Thirty was about average. More on page 40 of this report.)
• The Reaction: So far, not much on this. But we’ll keep our ears open.
Consistently Underperforming Groups of Students
• What ESSA Says: States have to identify schools where certain subgroups of students (say, English-language learners or students in special education) are “consistently underperforming.” Those schools are supposed to get “targeted support” under ESSA, which means the school comes up with a plan to fix the problem and the district has to monitor its efforts. If the school doesn’t get any better after a certain number of years—determined by the district—the district steps in and takes over the turnaround.
• What the Draft Rules Say: The proposed rules leave it up to states to decide what “consistently underperforming” means. But these state defintions must incorporate at least one of the following criteria: a) whether the subgroup is on track to meet the state’s long-term goals, b) whether the subgroup is performing at the lowest level on any one of the state’s academic indicators, c) whether the subgroup is at or below a certain level of performance, compared to the rest of state, d) whether the subgroup is performing way below the state average, or the average of the highest performing subgroup in the state, or e) another factor that the state comes up with.
Also, under the regulations, a state is supposed to consider a school as having “chronically underperforming” subgroups of students and step in and fix the problem if the subgroup’s performance isn’t getting any better after three years.
• The Reaction: While the proposed regulatory language seems to jibe with ESSA’s statutory language that the term shall be “determined by the State,” the Education Trust, a civil rights advocacy group, has argued that the options available to states are too loose, and would allow many states to downplay the performance of struggling students.
Turnaround and Intervention Plans
• What ESSA Says: There are basically two big buckets of schools to know about here. Schools in “comprehensive support” fall into the bottom 5 percent of performers, high schools where less than 67 percent of students graduate, and those where a particular subgroup of students is performing really poorly, as poorly as kids in schools in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state. And then there are the schools in “targeted support,” are those where a particular subgroup of students is struggling.
For schools in comprehensive support, districts come up with an evidence-based plan to fix the problem, monitored by the state. For schools in targeted support, schools must come up with an evidence-based plan to fix the problem, monitored by the district.
• What the Draft Rules Say: States need to let parents know if their child’s school has been identified for “targeted” or “comprehensive” support. And the state should try very hard to come up with evidence-based interventions that meet the most-rigorous evidence standards. If states want to, they can even come up with a list of preapproved strategies for districts to try.
Also, for schools in targeted support, districts should consider whether the school (or even certain populations within the school) are getting access to a fair share of resources, including money and good teachers. Districts also must establish “exit criteria” for when a school no longer needs to be in targeted support (for instance, the students in whatever subgroup was struggling are now performing much better).
• The Reaction: So far, not much on this. We’ll update this post if we hear more.
Identifying Schools for Interventions
• What ESSA Says: States are supposed to build an “index” for measuring school performance that includes student achievement, graduation rates, English-language proficiency, and another academic factor (which could be growth on tests). Plus, they have to include another indicator that gets at school quality or students’ opportunity to learn (something like school climate, success in advanced coursework, teacher engagement). Schools that perform really badly on these indicators and are found to be in the bottom 5 percent of performers are identified for “comprehensive suppport.” Those where a particular subgroup of students are performing poorly are identified for “targeted support.”
• What the Draft Rules Say: States can’t get off the “comprehensive improvement” list just because they have made progress on the school quality indicator—they have to also make progress on an academic indicator. So that means, for instance, that a school with really low math and reading scores that’s been able to help fix poor teacher engagement can’t get out of improvement status until its math and reading scores get better.
• The Reaction: Not a whole lot that we’ve seen so far, although Petrilli’s earlier criticisms about the overall importance school quality indicator can also apply here.
Timelines and Deadlines
• What ESSA Says: The U.S. Department of Education approves state accountability plans that will begin in the 2017-18 school year. Waivers from the mandates of the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, expire on July 1 of this year. The 2016-17 school year is a transition time between the two systems.
• What the Draft Rules Say: There are two deadlines to submit these plans, one in March 2017, and the other in July 2017. Although the plans would start in 2017-18, schools with high drop-out rates or schools in the bottom 5 percent of performers must be identified as needing “comprehensive support” based on their 2016-17 outcomes. (Districts with schools in “comprehensive support” need to come up with a plan to fix the problem, which the state is supposed to monitor. If the school doesn’t get better after a period of time set by the state—no more than four years—the state has to step in and try a more serious intervention.)
• The Reaction: The deadlines may not be easy to deal with, thanks to the presidential transition. The March deadline will be very soon after a new administration takes over. And the July deadline is very close to the 2017-18 academic year. But moving up the deadlines might cut into states’ development time for the plans. And the required use of 2016-17 academic data for some school-improvement decisions worries some who say schools would be working in a sort of accountability limbo.
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