I've been writing a lot about ESSA and the need for active vigilance as our states attempt to write their own school accountability standards and procedures.
Here in Washington, state education leaders have developed a first draft of the statewide education plan due to the U.S. Education Department by Sept. 18, 2017.
A major chunk of the plan is dedicated to school accountability: knowing how well schools are meeting the academic needs of students, showing that information to parents and communities, and helping schools that are struggling the most. Of everything that happens during the transition from No Child Left Behind, this part of the process will have the most impact on educational equity, which means it will have the most impact on our traditionally oppressed students and communities. Which means nothing else in this plan matters if we let our education leaders get this part wrong.
So, let's stay vigilant together. Here are some highlights and potential concerns from the first draft of Washington's consolidated ESSA plan:
Where data is available, Washington wants 100 percent of elementary and middle school students testing on grade level (or on track to being there) by 2037. At the 10-year midpoint, they hope to have each subgroup of students (including different racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, low-income students, etc.) cut the learning gap in half.
So, if 40 percent of black students are testing at grade level in 2017, for example, the state would like to see 70 percent of them at grade level by 2027 (the gap to get to 100 percent was 60, so half of that means an increase of 30).
In 10 years, at least 90 percent of students from each subgroup should be testing on grade level in high school and graduating from high school.
English language proficiency goals are still to be determined.
Tracking and Rating Schools
States also have to measure how schools are doing in other areas. Washington has chosen to look at graduation rates, whether students are meeting a minimum bar for grade-level work, how much students are growing academically, progress for non-native English speakers, and “School Quality or Student Success” (things like chronic absenteeism, dual-credit participation and the percent of 9th graders who don’t fail a course).
They’ll use all of these indicators to give schools an overall score or rating.
The state hasn’t completely figured out its rating system yet. Everything related to academics (such as student performance on tests, graduation rates, etc.) will count for more than the school-quality factors just mentioned, but exactly how the state plans to calculate a score remains vague.
In the plan, students’ academic growth is considered to be of “high” importance, performing at grade level is “medium,” and school-quality factors are “low.” This seems like generally the right way to think about it — academic factors should be a priority and count for more in a school’s overall score — but “precise numerical weightings have not been assigned,” according to the draft plan.
When they do figure out how to calculate scores, Washington will give schools an overall rating on a 1-10 scale. They’ll also give schools a color label tied to that ranking.
These scores will be based on a three-year average. Unfortunately, Washington will only ask schools to report every three years. In other words, in some years, parents would be looking at a scores that use information that’s nearly six years old. Taking a three-year average makes sense — it can be misleading to judge the hard work of teaching kids by such a small sample size as a single year. But not recalibrating that three-year average every year is a disservice to parents and others seeking to have timely information about what’s happening in Washington schools.
How are 'subgroups' counted?
Federal law says states have to track specific groups of students — the kind of kids who usually get the short end of the stick in education. Not only do states have to track them, but they must have a plan in place if those subgroups of students — again, students of color, students with disabilities, low-income students, etc. — are not getting the education they deserve.
In the section of the plan where states are supposed to identify each “major” and “racial ethnic” group, Washington seems to ignores the “major” part — students with disabilities, low-income students, and English learners — and only addresses the racial ethnic groups.
In another section, Washington says it plans to create two sets of subgroups to help them identify schools that need “targeted support” (see more on this in the next section). The first set would group racial and ethnic minorities together — nearly any non-white student, it would seem. The second, called the “program” group, would include English learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students.
It’s unclear if Washington will report on low-income students or students with disabilities if they aren’t identified for this level of support. The only mention of this second set is when the plan talks about providing support to struggling subgroups needing “targeted support.” If the state doesn’t report on them, it will create a serious issue of state transparency with parents, and it could also put the state in violation of federal law.
Support for Struggling Schools
Once Washington figures out how to give every school a score, education officials will identify the bottom five percent of schools to receive the highest level of support: "comprehensive support." Schools with a four-year graduation rate below 67 percent will also be marked for comprehensive support.
The state will give these schools 90 days to figure out what they need to improve and come up with a plan. The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office (OSPI) will review those plans and get them back to the schools within 30 days.
Schools that aren’t in the bottom five percent but have struggling subgroups of students will be identified as schools needing "targeted support.” The intervention is basically the same: Give them time to make a plan to turn things around. The major difference is funding. OSPI has no way of knowing for sure how much money will be available from the federal government, so comprehensive-support schools will be first priority when funding these plans. Whatever’s left will go to the targeted-support schools.
To identify targeted-support schools, the state will look at those two sets of subgroups (the racial/ethnic minorities set, and the “program” set with non-native English speakers, students with disabilities, and low-income students). Within each set, they’ll see which schools are struggling the most and select them for targeted support.
We need to monitor the state's school rating system, which is currently in development by the Achievement and Accountability workgroup.
We also need to look into the rationale behind only checking school accountability measures every three years. This sets the stage for some very outdated information.
And we need to know if low-income students and students with disabilities will be reported on even if they don’t fall into the comprehensive or targeted support categories. This isn’t clear in the plan. We know they’ll be tracked for long-term goals, but outside of the targeted support details, they aren’t mentioned in the plan’s accountability section.
Another ESSA deadline came and went like a thief in the night. Did you notice?
In case you missed it — which you probably did, because nobody’s really been talking about it — Congress revamped No Child Left Behind and renamed it the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. This new law changes a few things, but one of the most significant is that it hands over to states more control of their education systems.
One of the first steps in transitioning to ESSA is for states to submit accountability plans, essentially telling the feds how they plan to monitor themselves and hold themselves accountable within this new framework.
So, for the past year or so, states have been working on these plans, which will establish standards and accountability measures for things like upholding civil rights and serving traditionally neglected demographics.
Monday, April 3, was the first deadline to submit plans to the federal government. States were also given the option submit plans to their own governors on Monday, have them reviewed for 30 days, and then submit to the federal government by May 3. Colorado is doing that. In fact, nine states plus Washington D.C. submitted Monday, and more have announced plans to meet the April deadlne.
Here in Washington State, though, all is eerily quiet. Why aren't we seeing any developments on Washington's ESSA plan? Why is nobody -- aside from Chris Reykdal, who mentioned it once in a bizarre, obscure op-ed in the Eatonville Dispatch -- talking about it?
As I've said, it's hard to feel optimistic that Washington State, with its atrocious opportunity gaps and record of disproportionate discipline, will submit a plan to actually hold our schools accountable to standards they've never met. In fact, without vigilant public oversight, it's hard to see how our schools don't get worse through this process, which I had thought, given the current state of affairs, was inconceivable.
This whole ESSA process is supposed to include perpetual public input and feedback. Washington State has been utterly silent throughout this process. In fact, the state seems be intentionally minimizing public scrutiny — makes me all the more concerned about where we're headed.
By Laura Waters
If you’re a parent like me, at the start of each school year you eagerly learn all about the course content your child will study, the enrichment opportunities available, the field trips your child will take and the school supplies your child will need as you brace yourself for that evening’s trip to Staples.
If you’re a taxpayer like me, you know how much of your money goes to public education.
In other words, you are well-informed about everything that goes into your child’s educational experience, which we can call “input.” But what about the output? How much do you really know, outside of parent-teacher conferences and the quarterly report card, about your child’s learning outcomes?
The answer is likely “not much,” and that’s true across America, both at the micro-level of your specific child and at the macro-level of schools, districts and historically under-served subgroups like English-language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and students from economically-disadvantaged homes.
Yet, according to federal law—once called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now called Every Student Succeeds Act(ESSA)—schools and states are responsible for both inputs and outputs in order to ensure adequate school quality and equity.
Another word for this sort of responsibility is “accountability,” a much-maligned word in the education arena, often clustered with other imprecations like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” “standardized tests,” and “value-added teacher evaluations.”
But accountability simply means that states are responsible not only for adequate inputs like sufficient funding, ambitious course content standard and high-quality instruction, but also for outputs like accurate measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. They are also responsible for intervening in the lowest-performing schools through extra funding, new leadership and other turnaround strategies.
These strategies, of course, are mere inputs. If student achievement—the ultimate output—remains stagnant then those initiatives represent wasted resources and, more urgently, wasted time for that school’s students.
Over the last several years federal and state accountability legislation has come under attack from a duo of strange bedfellows: Tea Party/Trump-ish acolytes who wave the banner of local control and teacher union leaders who disdain objective measurements of student learning, at least when they’re tied to teacher evaluations and job security.
ESSA, America’s new federal education law, provides wiggle room to accommodate this political pressure, a kind of NCLB-lite, extracting federal teeth to gum onto the cachet of hands-off government.
Yet states still must, like under NCLB, administer annual standardized tests to students in grades three through eight, intervene in the lowest-performing schools, report progress for historically under-served subgroups, and submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education.
But states can also play limbo (how low can you go?) with tying student outcomes to teacher evaluations and with how they measure school quality.
Daria Hall of Education Trust warns:
"We have to be really cautious because we know that states have a long track record of not making tough decisions when it comes to the interest of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners. If states are going to walk away from those students, we are going to lose whatever progress we’ve made with those students, who now make up the majority of our public school population."
Clear and sober data can help parents make informed school choices and learn more than what goes on that Staples shopping list. That’s a key goal of accountability systems. Now if only states could accept responsibility for the elements necessary to ensure that all students have access to the input of effective instructional services and the output of developmentally-appropriate proficiency.
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk as Beyond Staples: How Parents Benefit from School Accountability.