This Week’s ESSA News — Inside the Dept. of Education’s Feedback to 10 States on Testing, Accountability & Disadvantaged Students

This update on the Every Student Succeeds Act and the education plans now being refined by state legislatures is produced in partnership with ESSA Essentials, a new series from the Collaborative for Student Success. It’s an offshoot of their ESSA Advance newsletter, which you can sign up for here! (See our recent ESSA updates from previous weeks right here.)

In the past weeks, the U.S. Department of Education sent feedback to 33 of the 34 states that submitted ESSA plans in September 2017. The Department has also approved ESSA plans for 15 states and the District of Columbia — all of which were submitted earlier in the year. (Only Colorado’s plan is still pending from the spring submission period.)

Below, we dig into the details of the Department’s responses to 10 of the second-round plans that received feedback (in chronological order): Utah, Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Wyoming, Florida, and Iowa. We will provide detailed descriptions of the Education Department’s feedback on the 21 remaining second-round state plans in the weeks ahead (plus South Carolina, when the Department shares its thoughts with state officials). Earlier feedback received by Maryland and Georgia is available here.

1. Utah

According to Education Week’s Alyson Klein, the Department of Education says Utah “needs to spell out its long-term goals for math and reading, and for English-language learners to attain proficiency.”

  • Utah also needs to “make it clear whether it is using the ACT or some other assessment as its test for high school students.”
  • In the Utah plan, state officials proposed allowing local school districts to determine their own factors to measure school quality and student success.
  • However, if these factors “are used in state accountability determinations, the department is worried not every school will be held accountable for the same indicators.”

At this point, it remains unclear whether factors such as English language proficiency, graduation rates, and exam results will “make up at least half of a school’s overall rating in Utah’s system, as required by ESSA,” the Education Department says. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

2. Alabama

In a letter dated December 13, AL.com reports, the U.S. Department of Education told Alabama education officials that it needs more detail regarding their ESSA accountability plan before the agency can give its final stamp of approval.

  • Federal officials are seeking clarification on how Alabama plans to “calculate indicators for student achievement and year-to-year improvement,” as well as its plan to tackle “barriers to academic success” for homeless students.
  • The federal agency is also seeking more information on “how state officials plan to identify and assist schools that need improvement,” and “how the state plans to ensure effective and experienced teachers are reaching low-income and minority children.”

Overall, the Education Department’s letter contains more than six pages of detailed questions about specific aspects of the state’s plan. According to Dr. Michael Sibley, the communications director for the Alabama State Department of Education, “the areas of concern have been parsed out to the appropriate personnel within the department.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

3. Alaska

Education Week’s Alyson Klein also reports on federal feedback to state education officials in Alaska. The state “needs to provide much more detail about how it will calculate academic achievement, graduation rates, and English-language proficiency.”

  • Federal officials are concerned that Alaska’s method for identifying the lowest 5 percent of schools is not adequate, which could prevent some schools from getting the assistance they require.
  • Additionally, Alaska’s plan “for flagging schools with low-performing subgroups of students isn’t very fleshed out” since according to the latest iteration of the state’s plan it “will be based on ‘to-be-determined’ targets.”
  • The Education Department asks Alaska education officials to “fill in the blanks” on these performance metrics.

Federal education officials also want Alaska to provide more specific information regarding its plans to ensure thar “poor children get their fair share of qualified teachers.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

4. Kansas

Klein also says Kansas’s ESSA plan “is missing quite a bit of information.” The state “must provide specific interim targets for student achievement, in addition to its big, overarching goal.”

  • The Education Department asked Kansas education officials to clarify how they plan to determine academic ratings for schools and “consider school quality and student success.”
  • The state also needs to clarify “how much consideration it is giving to things like test scores and graduation rates, as opposed to chronic absenteeism.”

The feds want Kansas to move more quickly to provide extra help for struggling schools, as well as revising the plan’s methodology for identifying schools “where historically overlooked students aren’t performing well.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

5. Montana

According to Corin Cates-Carney of Montana Public Radio, during a mid-December phone call, U.S. Education Department officials “flagged” a number of issues with Montana’s ESSA accountability plan.

  • The Department asked for more details regarding the state’s policies to determine English language proficiency, graduation rates, and academic achievement, among other factors.
  • Federal officials also wanted clarification regarding the state’s system for identifying schools that are not performing as required, as well as determining when they have improved sufficiently to shed “low-performing” status.

State officials had until Dec. 28, 2017, to revise and resubmit their ESSA plan to the Education Department. According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction website, the Department’s letter “asked for details, clarifications, and consistency in terminology,” and OPI staff “worked together to provide the requested clarifications and add further detail.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

6. North Carolina

The U.S. Department of Education wants more information from state education officials in North Carolina on topics such as how school quality and academic factors will be calculated, as well as the system by which they will be weighted.

  • North Carolina’s plan must also improve its system for demonstrating consistent improvement in schools so state education officials can properly determine when a school can return to “normal” from “low-performing” status.
  • Additionally, the state’s plan needs to reconfigure its system for ensuring that low-income students receive adequate resources, including access to qualified teachers.

Additionally, North Carolina needs to move more quickly to provide extra help for struggling schools. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

7. South Dakota

In a December 13 letter, the U.S. Department of Education details its requests for more information and clarification on numerous aspects of South Dakota’s ESSA plan on a broad range of issues.

  • Education Week’s Alyson Klein reports that federal officials “want more specifics from South Dakota on its methodology for identifying schools with consistently underperforming groups of students.”
  • The federal agency also wants more information on South Dakota’s plans “to make sure disadvantaged children get access to their fair share of quality teachers.”
  • The feds are also “unsure if South Dakota’s plan for measuring English-language proficiency meets ESSA’s requirements.”

Other issues highlighted in the Department’s feedback letter include targeted support and improvement for schools with “consistently underperforming” subgroups, improving educator skills, and native language assessment definition. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

8. Wyoming

Tennessee Watson of the Wyoming Public Media Statewide Network reports that state education officials received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education in December “asking for more information on several points before approval can be given.”

  • Education Week’s Klein notes that the issues cited include how the state “will calculate graduation rates, schools’ academic success, and progress in attaining English-language proficiency.”
  • Department officials also want more detail regarding Wyoming’s methodology for weighting various indicators and when deciding “low-performing schools no longer need help,” as well clarification as to whether the state “plans to flag schools for extra help every three years, as ESSA requires.”

Wyoming Department of Education Communications Director Kari Eakins said in response that much of this information was purposely omitted: “We don’t want to put all of our state accountability into our federal plan because then that means that the U.S. Department of Education would have some say over how [state] money is spent … we tried to have this plan talk about what are we doing with our federal funds and how is that meeting the requirements of” ESSA. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

9. Florida

The Tampa Bay Times’ Jeffrey Solochek says that the U.S. Department of Education told Florida education officials in December that the state “can’t simply adopt rules that run counter to” ESSA, “particularly without seeking waivers,” including the way the state “approaches tests in languages other than English.”

  • The Education Department’s letter also “took issue with the state’s plan to exempt certain eighth graders from inclusion in assessing middle school math performance.”
  • Additionally, the letter “challenged the state’s method of accounting for demographic subgroups in measuring achievement.”

Federal education officials gave their Florida counterparts until January 4 to submit a revised draft of the state’s plan; Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has asked for an extension beyond this deadline. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

10. Iowa

For Iowa, federal officials (you guessed it) asked for more information on numerous issues before the agency can give its approval to Wyoming’s ESSA plan. According to Alyson Klein:

  • The Education Department took issue with Iowa “allowing low-performing schools that make significant progress to no longer be considered in need of serious supports,” even if they “are still in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state.”
  • In addition, federal officials said the state “needs to spell out how it makes sure disadvantaged students have access to their fair share of effective teachers.”

The Hawkeye State also “got hit” for its use of “scale scores,” which “convert student grades to a comparable scale, say of 1 to 100.” Other states (such as Connecticut) received similar feedback in the first round of ESSA plan submissions but “ended up being able to use scale scores with minimal changes to their plans.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

Stay tuned for more on federal feedback on state ESSA plans in the coming weeks!

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