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This Week’s ESSA News: A New Way to Compare Graduation Rates, Illinois Becomes First State to Feature Arts as Key State Measure, Feds Grant Testing Waivers & More

By Erika Ross | March 31, 2020

This update on the Every Student Succeeds Act and the education plans now being implemented by states and school districts is produced in partnership with ESSA Essentials, an ongoing 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.)

This past month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic can bypass standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year. After receiving a “proper” request, the Department “will grant a waiver to any state that is unable to assess its students due to the ongoing national emergency, providing relief from federally mandated testing requirements for this school year.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos noted in the release announcing the waivers that “neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time” and that “students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”

She added: “Our actions today provide turnkey flexibilities for state and local leaders to focus on the immediate needs of their students and educators without worrying about federal repercussions.”

The Department has also given “borrowers with student loans the option of suspending payments.” Those with federal student loan debt can request a postponement of payments for at least 60 days. All borrowers, “regardless of whether they choose to postpone their payments,” will see their interest rates set at zero for at least 60 days.

Beyond testing, here are the week’s other top headlines for how states are implementing (and innovating under) ESSA:

Illinois introduces arts as weighted indicator in state score 

The Illinois State Board of Education recently voted unanimously to “include arts as a weighted indicator of K-12 success in its school accountability metrics under the Every Student Succeeds Act.” Only a few states include the arts as part of their ESSA accountability metrics, and none include them as weighted indicators of success for all grades K-12.

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, the arts “indicator will equal 5% of every school’s total score.” The vote marked a big win for arts education advocates, including Arts Alliance Illinois Executive Director Claire Rice, who says the “arts teach students to think critically and solve problems creatively. Arts learning also enhances student engagement and helps with social and emotional development.”

A new way to use graduation rates to benchmark schools with similar demographics 

In EducationNext, Erica Blom and Theresa Anderson argue for the use of regression-adjusted graduation rates to compare schools “against other schools with similar demographics, allowing for fairer comparisons.” This, they say, “allows the performance of entire schools to be meaningfully compared without having to compare each subgroup separately.”

The subgroups refer to the “four different dimensions” that the Every Student Succeeds Act requires schools to break out graduation rates into: economic disadvantage, race or ethnicity, English language learner and disability status.

While questions regarding implementation remain, adjusting graduation rates for student disadvantage would allow for a more direct comparison of schools with similar demographics, which would be, the authors say,  “a good first step to make quality measurement more accurate and fair.”

Coronavirus absenteeism’s impact on accountability — and equity

Phyllis W. Jordan writes at both FutureEd and The 74 about the spread of coronavirus and how the need for social distancing is posing real challenges for states that use chronic absenteeism as a factor for determining school performance and accountability.

“Currently,” she writes, “36 states and the District of Columbia use some definition of chronic absenteeism in assessing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.” Additionally, she notes, “there’s also an equity dimension that coronavirus-inspired school closings need to address,” as low-income and disadvantaged students are less likely to have the resources to replace lost school time — including internet access.

Some states — such as Washington, California and South Carolina — are finding “creative solutions” to address these equity concerns.

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