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This Week’s ESSA News: Maryland Releases Second Year of School Ratings, School Climate Surveys Emerging as Accountability Measure, Looking Ahead to Reauthorization & More

By Erika Ross | December 15, 2019

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.)

To comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s requirement for “states to include non-academic factors in judging schools’ performance,” three-quarters of states added student absenteeism to their accountability systems.

However, as a new report from FutureEd details, some states are also using annual surveys to assess school climate and student engagement and “are using the results to gather information to inform school-improvement work,” while others “are going further, holding schools accountable for the results, despite widespread concern among researchers that these tools were not intended for that purpose and are not reliable enough to determine school quality.”

Additionally, “many researchers fear that attaching higher stakes to surveys could tempt schools to manipulate results, further reducing the instruments’ value to principals and other school staff.”

In their report, FutureEd examined state accountability plans approved by the U.S. Department of Education and interviewed state officials to determine how they are measuring these factors and how they are using the survey results to “calculate a score as part of an accountability rubric used to identify struggling schools.”

Here are the week’s other top headlines for how states are continuing to implement the nation’s new education law:

Maryland county schools score high ratings — though middle schools struggle to stand out

In Maryland’s second year of its star-rating system — which was implemented under ESSA — schools in Frederick County all received at least three stars in the 2019 school report cards. It was one of only 13 counties in the state that saw such results. In total, “Frederick County had eight schools receive three-star ratings, 37 schools receive four-star ratings and 16 schools receive five-star ratings.”

At the same time, not one of the five-star ratings went to a middle school in the county, prompting Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban to say that academic performance at the middle school level continues to be a focus.

More states embracing evidence-based interventions

As Jed Herrmann reports in The Regulatory Review, ESSA is a key example of “landmark bipartisan legislation that is helping identify and invest in what works” in K-12 education by increasing “the use of rigorous evidence” to improve results. ESSA “requires state education agencies to invest 7 percent of their federal funds allocated for improving basic educational programs … in evidence-based interventions.”

States such as Nevada are even building on this requirement, expanding the use of evidence-based interventions and seeing “improved results in the form of early increases in test scores,” with proficiency on the rise in “nearly all students from third to eighth grades.”

A year away from ESSA 2.0: how lawmakers can strengthen the law during reauthorization 

The Every Student Succeeds Act will need to be reauthorized after the 2020-21 school year, and, as Conor P. Williams outlines here in The 74, this presents a great opportunity for Congress to strengthen the law.

Among his recommendations, Williams suggests that lawmakers “consider deeper centralization of public education,” partly by increasing federal funding for public education. He also urges them to “consider revamping federal accountability” by adding more specificity into the law and dramatically expanding “the amount the federal government spends on public education,” with the goal of increasing access to early childhood education.

Finally, Williams argues, ESSA should “avoid mandating priorities that federal policies are bad at advancing” and refocus resources and energy “on issues that federal mandates can actually address.”

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