By Dr. Elizabeth Primas (Program Manager, NNPA/ESSA Public Awareness Campaign)
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia submitted their proposals for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on April 4, 2017. The remaining states are required to submit their proposals on September 18, 2017. A review of the first proposals submitted, which included Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont, showed some improvements, as well as areas of concern, related to how education officials plan to address accountability and school performance at the state and local levels.
Multiple state plans emphasized their intentions to provide well-rounded curriculums; ensuring students have increased access to high-quality science and social studies in addition to reading and mathematics. In fact, more than half of submitted state plans include assessments for science and social studies in addition to the required English Language Arts, reading and mathematics. Some states went as far as including fine arts, music, physical education, and library media specialists. Therefore, state plans stress the importance of a curriculum that focuses on more than reading and arithmetic.
In addition to providing a well-rounded curriculum, states included in their accountability systems plans to strengthen their existing strategies while introducing new approaches, as they move forward. New Jersey proposes to double count the academic performance of student subgroups in school evaluations to ensure that the needs of struggling students’ do not go overlooked. Nevada’s plan proposes moving towards the creation of Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) for each student. This ambitious goal will measure student engagement, achievement and growth, while providing a more holistic view of school success.
However, Oregon, Connecticut and Tennessee propose to combine subgroups for accountability measures. This process will mask exactly which students are struggling, and assumes that corrective measures for each subgroup would be the same. ESSA requires states to report data for each subgroup; presuming that detailed data reporting will highlight areas of inequity. Combined subgroup reporting does not meet the intent of ESSA and could result in stagnant academic progress. Arizona and Maine submitted plans that are underdeveloped and fail to provide details as to how they will address ESSA’s requirement to incorporate student subgroup data in their accountability system. Many states do not detail how their proposed strategies will be implemented or provide data to prove rationality for such strategies. Other proposals do not include proficiency targets, or methods for measuring whether students are reaching the state’s grade-level standards.
Overall, every submitted state plan can expand on their current proposals to develop accountability systems that ensure that “all” students make progress. States that have not submitted their proposals for ESSA should take time to review the state plans that have already been submitted and use them as a guide to improve upon their own proposed accountability systems. States that plan to submit proposals on September 18 should also take note that states that have been most successful at developing comprehensive plans, with an increased focus on the progress of all student subgroups, have effectively and consistently engaged parents and other education stakeholders.
The following is a brief overview of state plans that have already been submitted with a focus on their accountability systems.
Arizona’s plan proposes to equally weigh students’ academic achievement as well as their growth over time. Their submitted state plan also includes a variety of indicators to measure school quality, which would provide parents more transparency when selecting schools.
Arizona’s plan lacks details, especially on how it will meaningfully incorporate subgroups into its accountability system, how it will identify schools for improvement, and the criteria low-performing schools would need to meet to exit improvement status.
Colorado makes a laudable effort at including more students in its accountability system by lowering the threshold at which it includes subgroups for accountability and reporting purposes—including additional ways to capture data from schools with low-performing subgroups—and creating a methodology for including subgroups when they separately do not meet the minimum number of students required.
Colorado is proposing to shift to an entirely normative approach, where all indicators and the accountability system itself are based on relative performance, not a predefined standard. That approach may not be sufficiently clear to parents, educators, or other stakeholders, and it means the accountability system has no incentives aligned to the state’s professed goal of college and career readiness for all students.
Colorado has also not finalized a number of decisions in its accountability system, leading to uncertainty about how exactly it will be implemented in practice.
Connecticut has used the State Board of Education’s five-year comprehensive plan and the “Next Generation Accountability System” as a foundation to its ESSA plan. Although it hasn’t fully succeeded in aligning its proposed accountability system with its professed long-term vision, Connecticut could take specific steps to strengthen the cohesiveness of its efforts.
Connecticut’s plan does not include proficiency targets, and its accountability system does not include any measure capturing whether students are reaching the state’s grade-level standards.
Under the state’s proposed accountability system, schools will be competing against each other for their place in the rankings, rather than against a predetermined standard. That lack of front-end transparency will present a challenge for educators, who won’t have clear goals to shoot for at the beginning of each school year. The state’s exit criteria also allows low-performing schools to leave improvement status only once they jump enough schools in the state’s rankings.
Delaware’s accountability system is built on the backbone of strong college- and career-readiness standards and tests. Delaware has put in place many policies to steer more students toward college and career success.
Delaware has carefully selected a simple list of high-quality indicators to include in its accountability system.
By including science and social studies in the accountability system, the state is signaling the critical importance of a well-rounded education for all students. Delaware’s approach to measuring English language proficiency contains several interesting, innovative experiments.
While Delaware’s framework is strong, its plan is vague in several areas. It does not articulate how most of its individual accountability components would be measured, or how they would factor into overall ratings. Delaware’s plan seems to propose multiple school-identification systems that the state is still considering, but all are underdeveloped.
District of Columbia:
By including a 25 percent weighting for specific subgroups and lowering its minimum subgroup size for accountability purposes to 10 students, Washington, D.C. is attempting to ensure that more students are included in its accountability system and their performance is monitored more closely.
The District of Columbia’s submitted plan lacks detail as to how it will achieve its goals, specifically in reference to the lowest performing schools and subgroups. The District seems to supplement its lack of detail with proposed development of additional plans with deferred stakeholder engagement. There is concern that the continuous under performance of student subgroups will not sufficiently affect a school’s rating.
Schools with consistently underperforming subgroups are excluded from receiving exemplary or commendable school ratings. Illinois continues to prioritize academic performance in its accountability system, however it does suggest the possibility of including an early learning indicator as well as one for fine arts.
Illinois’ primary focus on the bottom 5 percent of students may lead to the maintenance of significant gaps within school districts, as long as subgroup performance does not fall below the bottom 5 percent.
Louisiana clearly defines their school rating system allowing for maximum transparency. Louisiana’s inclusion of science and social studies assessments prioritizes a well-rounded curriculum. Schools with consistently underperforming subgroups will be ineligible to receive an “A” rating.
Louisiana is proposing to use a low subgroup threshold of 10 students; capturing the performance of more students.
Louisiana does not sufficiently flag schools with subgroups of students who are not well served by the school. The submitted plan does not specifically include student subgroup scores in its statewide A-F grading system.
Maine proposes a small subgroup size of 10 students. A smaller subgroup size will be beneficial to a largely rural state like Maine, which is also primarily monolithic. Maine also proposes to lower the summative rating of schools if specific subgroups routinely underperform.
Much of Maine’s plan is still incomplete, including final accountability indicators and weighting and more complete description of its school identification plan.
If the state intends for 90 percent of students to be college- and career-ready, it would make sense for Maine to include an indicator of college and career readiness in its accountability system.
Massachusetts’ plan does not connect the dots between its long-term vision and how that vision will be embodied in its accountability system. As a result, it misses multiple opportunities to tie these together in meaningful and actionable ways.
Michigan’s plan is notable for the inclusion of science and social studies assessments in the accountability system time with fine arts, music, physical education and access to library specialists.
Michigan’s plan presents three potential accountability systems that it’s considering, but it hasn’t finalized its choice, and all three systems are underdeveloped.
Nevada has built its accountability system on high-quality standards and assessments that are aligned to college and careers, and the state’s accountability framework is based on ambitious goals and interim targets.
Nevada’s use of chronic absenteeism, school climate, and the completion of individual learning plans to measure student engagement broadens the accountability system and will present a more holistic view of school success.
Nevada does not include student subgroup data in its overall school rating system. Without student subgroup data as a variable for school ratings, the academic performance of underserved students may be overlooked. Nevada increases its subgroup size from 10 to 25 for schools identified for targeted supported, an inconsistency that could have ramifications for students in smaller schools.
New Jersey has developed a statistically sophisticated accountability system built on rigorous college- and career-ready standards. It has set goals at multiple performance levels, and it will be holding schools accountable for a short list of high-quality indicators, including strongly emphasizing student achievement and growth.
One of the most promising components of New Jersey’s plan is the weighting it puts on subgroups within the state accountability framework. By double-counting its student subgroups, New Jersey is attempting to ensure that schools prioritize the needs of all students.
New Jersey has done the hard work of creating strong college and career standards accompanied by long-term goals, but the state undercuts these objectives by hinging its accountability system entirely on percentile rankings rather than objectives standards.
The state has included a goal to reduce the percentage of post-secondary enrollees who require remediation, and the state’s accountability system includes a college-readiness indicator. Holding schools accountable for this measure will help the state move closer towards its long-term education and economic needs.
New Mexico also has a strong and clear plan for how it will build on its current school accountability system and adapt it over time. That includes consideration to how schools that are already identified as low-performing will continue to progress along school-intervention timelines.
New Mexico does not include student subgroup data in its accountability system. Instead, the plan includes student growth for the lowest performing students, however it is unclear rather the consistent underperformance of the lowest performing students would affect overall school ratings. Furthermore, Nevada’s proposal to set different achievement thresholds for different subgroups could imply that low performance is acceptable for some and unacceptable for others.
The state has outlined a simple, clear list of accountability indicators, and its plan places a strong weight on student achievement and growth; it proposes to include a simple measure of student achievement and a growth model that expects greater progress from lower-performing students.
North Dakota does not weight subgroup performance in its accountability system, and it proposes to cap the number of schools identified for targeted support at 10 percent of schools.
Oregon proposes to reduce their subgroup size from 40 to 20 students, capturing the performance of more students. Oregon also proposes to use at least three years of data from previous years to inform improvements in their accountability system, lowering the required subgroup size to seven for this purpose.
While Oregon’s description of the indicators in its accountability system is clear, it is not apparent how the indicators, weights, and subgroup performance are combined to identify schools.
Tennessee aligns district and school accountability systems that rely on high-quality indicators. Tennessee’s inclusion of a ready-to-graduate indicator focuses on students demonstrating college and career readiness, which goes beyond just earning a high school credential.
Tennessee’s accountability system assigns considerable weight to subgroup performance.
Tennessee proposes a “BHN” subgroup for their accountability system; combining the performance of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students; the state suggests that the uneven distribution of these ethnicities across the state inhibits them from collecting data effectively and a combined subgroup would allow them to capture the scores of more students. A combined subgroup for students of color is offensive, assumes that improvement measures would be the same for each group, and does not meet the equitable intentions of the law.
Vermont uses its ESSA flexibility in creative ways to attempt to hold schools accountable for students who would otherwise be overlooked. Finally, Vermont’s decision to incorporate both a school’s current score and its year-to-year change in a matrix approach is creative and will help the state identify the schools that are struggling the most.
Vermont’s proposed accountability system does a poor job addressing the needs of all students. Vermont’s submitted plan focuses primarily on within school achievement gaps. It does not articulate how it will identify schools with the lowest performing subgroups at the level of the lowest 5 percent of schools; a requirement of ESSA.
Dr. Elizabeth Primas is an educator, who spent more than 40 years working towards improving education for children of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. Dr. Primas is the program manager for the NNPA’s Every Student Succeeds Act Public Awareness Campaign. Follow Dr. Primas on Twitter @elizabethprimas.