This Week’s ESSA News: Amid ‘Mounting Concerns,’ U.S. Department of Education Approves Two States, Offers Feedback to Others on Testing, Accountability & Equity

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.)

U.S. News & World Report’s Lauren Camera discusses the increasing alarm among federal officials and education advocates about the efficacy of state ESSA plans. “As states cement education plans for their schools under” ESSA, she writes, the Department of Education “is working furiously to assess them amid mounting concerns about states’ commitment to following the law, their proposals to ensure historically disadvantaged students have access to quality education, and the department’s capacity—and in some cases, lack of desire—to police it all.”

This week, Minnesota and West Virginia became the first September submission states to have their plans approved by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Details of the approved plans were not available at press time.

Minnesota: On December 18, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius “asking state leaders to clarify several points of Minnesota’s new school accountability plan,” according to the Duluth News Tribune.

  • The Department asked how the state’s “system of support for struggling schools decides if a school has improved enough to no longer need help,” as well as the consequences for schools that do improve appropriately.
  • Federal officials also wanted clarification about Minnesota education officials’ plan to ensure students “are not repeatedly taught by ineffective teachers.”

According to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, Minnesota public schools “must make across-the-board progress if they want to be released from the increased oversight and support provided to struggling schools” under the state’s ESSA plan. The state also plans to rate schools based on numerous factors, such as achievement assessments, student progress, graduation rates, English-language learner achievement, and “an evolving measure of overall school quality.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

West Virginia: Brad McElhinny of Metro News reported at the end of December that the U.S. Education Department sent “West Virginia back to the drawing board” regarding “how much weight West Virginia gives to different areas of its academic accountability system, whether West Virginia is holding its counties accountable for English-language proficiency and the viability of locally selected tests in lower grades.”

  • McElhinny notes that the Education Department took the state “to task for not identifying the most common language spoken in the state, other than English,” and asked for clarification on English-language learner proficiency goals.
  • Federal officials also wanted clarification regarding the state’s plan to measure progress via lexile and quantile scales, rather than the rate of students achieving grade-level proficiency.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia revised its ESSA plan in response to the issues raised by the Education Department, “but the state isn’t revealing the changes.” A spokeswoman for the federal agency also declined to provide specifics of the revisions until the Department approves the plan “and the state submits the final clean version.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

In recent weeks (and as noted in last week’s edition), the U.S. Department of Education has been sending comments and questions back to states on their ESSA accountability plans. Below, we take a deeper look at the details of this feedback in 9 more states: Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Nebraska. We will continue to provide detailed descriptions of the Education Department’s feedback on the remaining second-round state plans in the weeks ahead.

1. Mississippi

In December, the U.S. Department of Education told Mississippi education officials “that they must provide more details about how they are meeting the challenges faced by underperforming students” under ESSA.

  • According to Education Week’s Alyson Klein, the Education Department’s letter said the state’s ESSA plan needs to explain “exactly how much English-language proficiency figures into a school’s overall grade under its accountability system.”
  • Mississippi also needs to clarify how it plans to come up with “more rigorous interventions” for schools that fail to improve after several years of involvement in a turnaround plan.

Other issues of concern include eighth-grade math assessments, academic achievement and other indicators, and disproportionate rates of access to educators. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

2. Missouri

Klein also reports that the U.S. Department of Education says Missouri has to clarify several points before its plan can receive approval.

  • While ESSA requires states to set graduation improvement rates that “narrow the gap between students in special education, English-language learners, and their more advantaged peers,” the graduation rate goal in Missouri’s ESSA plan for students in special education “doesn’t actually close gaps.”
  • Missouri needs to change how it identifies low-performing schools and “those with big achievement gaps.”

Additionally, the state also must explain how it will ensure “disadvantaged students have fair access to qualified teachers.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

3. New York

According to Chalkbeat, the U.S. Education Department will allow the “bulk” of New York’s ESSA plan to stand. The federal response to New York’s ESSA plan primarily called for “tweaks and clarifications” around issues such as achievement goals, graduation rates, English-language learners, and other topics.

  • The state may have to get annual federal approval to update its academic achievement and graduation goals as outlined in its accountability plan.
  • The letter also “suggests the state will not be able to use science and social studies test scores as a way to judge schools on their academic performance, though those subjects can still factor into ratings of school quality.”
  • In addition, New York education officials must also clarify (and potentially change) how the plan provides extra support for schools with consistent underperformance by subgroups.

As Chalkbeat notes, the feedback didn’t address any of the New York plan’s “hot-button” issues, such as the state’s request for a waiver for “students with disabilities to take state tests that align with their skill level rather than their grade,” which the Department will likely address separately. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

4. Ohio

Education Week’s Alyson Klein reports that the U.S. Department of Education’s December 19 letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria “flagged a number of issues” in Ohio’s ESSA plan, including how it identifies low-performing schools.

  • According to the Department’s letter, it is “unclear that the state is considering English-language proficiency as a separate indicator as ESSA requires.” This is because the state has incorporated this metric into a “broader measure on closing achievement gaps.”
  • Ohio must provide clarity regarding “how the gap-closing indicator fits into its overall system.”
  • The Education Department also asked the state to ensure its timetables for identifying struggling schools is in compliance with ESSA’s requirements.

Other concerns include eighth-grade math assessments, supporting the needs of migratory children, and access to services for homeless children. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

5. Virginia

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia’s ESSA plan “needs some work” according to the U.S. Department of Education, which said Virginia’s education goals “appear to expect potentially no improvement” for students.

  • The Old Dominion state must “identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools based on all measures used in its accountability system rather than the state picking and choosing measures.”
  • Alyson Klein reports that the state needs to clarify how it will ensure disadvantaged students can have “access to their fair share of effective teachers,” as well as the weighting system for indicators regarding its accountability mechanism.

Overall, Klein says, the Department gave Virginia a “long list” of issues to deal with, including “its n-size, its school quality indicators, its goals, its academic achievement indicator, and its plans for deciding when a school is no longer struggling and in need of extra supports.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

6. Washington

The U.S. Department of Education identified nine areas where Washington’s ESSA plan was inadequate or needed clarification. In response to this federal feedback, Washington “has increased its goal for English-language learners, clarified how it will evaluate high-school-graduation rates, and made a handful of other changes” to its ESSA plan, reports the Seattle Times.

  • Though the plan didn’t originally set a specific goal, state education officials clarified that Washington’s goal is to have 77% of English learner students making annual progress by 2027.
  • Additionally, since the plan included a goal of increasing the number of students completing college-level courses in high school, the state also clarified that it will “look at what percent of all high-school students complete such courses,” which was unclear in the original draft.

According to Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Michaela Miller, the “authors of Washington’s ESSA plan worked through the holidays to get a new version back” to the Education Department. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

7. Hawaii

Education Week’s Alyson Klein reports that the federal Education Department wants the Aloha State to make several changes to and provide clarification regarding aspects of its ESSA accountability plan.

  • The Education Department wants Hawaii to “identify languages other than English spoken by a significant number of students.”
  • Hawaii education officials also need to specify what is necessary for a school to remove itself from low-performing status.
  • Additionally, the state needs to ensure that “disadvantaged and minority students have access to their fair share of qualified teachers.”

Other issues of concern included graduation rates, the weighting of indicators, supporting the needs of migratory children, and improving the skills of educators, among others. Click here to see the Department’s letter.

8. Kentucky

The U.S. Department of Education’s feedback to Kentucky education officials included ensuring that the state’s English-language proficiency indicator “stands alone,” because, as Alyson Klein notes, the ELP indicator is currently “lumped in with other indicators in the state’s accountability system.”

  • The state must also clarify that it is “targeting schools as ‘chronically underperforming’ because of the performance of historically overlooked groups of students and not for another reason.”
  • Kentucky cannot incorporate writing test scores into a school’s “academic achievement” score, since such tests are not administered in all grade levels.

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt stated in response to the Department’s questions and direction that, overall, he is “pleased with where we are in the process and the feedback we have received.” Click here to see the Department’s letter.

9. Nebraska

The Associated Press says the U.S. Department of Education is also questioning Nebraska’s ESSA plan, specifically regarding how the state plans to “meet annual reporting requirements under the new education law.”

  • Education Week’s Klein provides more detail, noting that the federal agency disapproved of the state’s plan to use “a minimum number of assessments, rather than students,” as its minimum n-size.
  • The state also must define English proficiency under its ESSA plan, and ensure it counts as a” separate indicator” in its system.
  • Nebraska education officials must clarify how much weight each indicator in its accountability system is assigned, so federal officials can ensure academics are “given more consideration than other factors.”

Nebraska also “got hit” for its use of “scale scores,” which “convert student grades to a comparable scale, say of 1 to 100.” However, 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.

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