Early ESSA plans dinged for not addressing needs of all kids

Early ESSA plans dinged for not addressing needs of all kids

(Mass.) The first round of Every Student Succeed Act state plans submitted to the federal education department show promise in terms of how states will identify and support struggling schools, but no state has submitted a plan likely to close achievement gaps between subgroups, according to new research.

Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success analyzed the 17 state accountability plans that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in April and May, looking specifically at how states intended to measure student growth and implement school improvement strategies, among other indicators.

While states excelled in some areas, none were deemed a “model state” that could serve as an example of how to close these achievement gaps while maintaining high standards by defining subgroups, collecting relevant data and providing the resources for schools to help address the diverse needs of all students.

“It’s a balance, and we haven’t seen any state that has figured out how to do both at a very high level” said Erika McConduit, president of the Urban League of Louisiana and one of the 30 experts who analyzed state ESSA plans. “It’s the hardest part of what ESSA is asking states to do–balancing this notion of excellence and equity in order to serve all students.” 

Congress crafted ESSA to give states far more flexibility and responsibility in the governance of public education following years of complaints that federal officials were impeding upon local control in the management of schools. But while states do have more leeway in developing their plans, each is required to hold schools accountable for student progress in English language proficiency; high school graduation rates; academic achievement in reading and mathematics and academic progress on statewide tests among all student groups.

However, ESSA does allow states to move away from a requirement under No Child Left Behind that the academic performance of subgroups including English learners or racial minorities be included in schools’ overall ratings. Advocates for low-income families, foster youth, English learners, students with disabilities, Black, Hispanic and Latino students have argued that, without that mandate, schools will not be held accountable for these children’s outcomes.

According to McConduit, six of the 17 states that have submitted plans did include their intention to include subgroup scores in schools’ overall accountability ratings–and others demonstrated some thoughtfulness and creativity in terms of their intention to serve all students in other ways.

A handful of states included pre-K readiness or performance measurements as an indicator in accountability, which she said is good because a lot of the achievement gaps that emerge tend to start appearing in early grades.

Overall, however, authors of the report did find what while a handful of states would incorporate subgroup performance directly into each school’s rating system, only a few provided information detailing what that would look like in practice.

Additionally, the n-size decided upon by each state varied. Under ESSA, states have the authority to decide the minimum number of students required to form a subgroup for accountability purposes–known as the n-size. Too small an n-size could lead to privacy issues if schools only have a small number of students in any particular subgroup, but too large a number would keep schools from being held accountable for the performance of some groups.

The National Center for Education Statistics has said that subgroups as small as 10 can meet both data reliability needs and student privacy protections. According to the Bellwether analysis, some states did adopt an n-size of 10, while others indicated they would adopt an n-size as high as 30.

In rating how state plans would address the performance gaps between subgroups, those charged with analyzing the plans also considered changes to disciplinary practices that lead to disproportionate disciplinary rates and whether states took into account access to and participation in career and technical education and arts education.

States that tried to take a more holistic approach did do better, McConduit said. She did note, though, that while there are strategies and practices that work better than others in closing achievement gaps, there is no single tried and true way to do so, and states should take into account their own student populations.

“It is something that we have traditionally struggled with, and it’s hard to say that we know exactly what will work,” McConduit said. “The reality is that every state is unique, and while we look for best practices and evidence-based models, that always should be balanced against the individual characteristics of a state and its citizens. This is where the rubber meets the road, and it’s the single biggest challenge in front of every state, and they’re still trying to figure it out.”

The report did highlight a number of areas in which states were making strides. In Louisiana, for example, analysts found the goals outlined in the state plan to be “ambitious, attainable and backed by clear data,” and noted that the same final targets were set for all student groups, but that faster progress was expected of subgroups further behind.

New Mexico, Vermont and New Jersey received top marks for their commitment to college and career ready standards and aligning high-quality assessments in math and English language arts; and Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee, New Jersey, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia were recognized for planning to incorporate subgroup performance directly into each school’s rating system.

And all 17 states included a measure of year-to-year student growth, allowing schools to receive credit for how much progress their students make over time.