This Week’s ESSA News: Utah Students Who Opt Out Will Be Counted as Failing, and Florida State Plan Only One Still Not Approved

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.)

Utah schools are “poised to take a hit from parents who excuse their children from year-end tests,” Benjamin Wood reports in the Salt Lake Tribune. That’s because the Utah Board of Education has “agreed to count opt-outs as students who took tests but failed in order to achieve a minimum participation rate of 95 percent” in their recently approved ESSA plan.

The state had asked for, but did not get, flexibility in meeting the requirement that no more than 5 percent of students not sit for state tests in grades 3 through 8 annually or at least once in high school. In 2017, 5.9 percent of Utah students statewide opted out, 13 percent of charter schools students did, and in five charter schools, more than 50 percent of students did not take the tests, Wood reported.

Making the situation even trickier, Wood says, Utah law prohibits schools from encouraging participation in year-end tests, or from using test scores in calculating semester-end grades.

“It puts us in a tough spot,” said Andrew Frink, technology director for the Park City Public Schools, which has the highest opt-out rate in the state and whose best students are among those declining the test. “Utah is a parents’-rights state. It’s very clear in legislation; parents have the right to opt out if they choose.

Florida officials are also asking themselves, “What to do?” as the Tampa Bay Times’s Jeffrey Solochek reports. Despite the fact that the Trump administration “has in many ways held up Florida’s education system as a model for the nation” and “hired many former Florida education officials to top jobs in its own education department,” Florida’s ESSA plan “is now the only one that remains unapproved by Secretary Betsy DeVos.”

Last week, DeVos approved the plans for California and Utah but took no action on Florida’s plan, which the state submitted in April (this was the state’s “second attempt to receive federal approval, after its initial proposal came back with a ‘needs improvement’ mark from the feds”).

And Elizabeth Behrman reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Pittsburgh’s “latest efforts to turn around its struggling schools are going to be a model for other Pennsylvania districts looking to boost their performance.” The school district is one of three in Pennsylvania to participate in the state Department of Education’s school improvement pilot program, “a new plan to more closely share state resources with districts that have the lowest-performing schools,” a “major piece of the state blueprint under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.”

Check out below for more ESSA news.

1 The deal with “highly qualified teachers” under ESSA

In the latest installment of Education Week’s “answering your ESSA questions” series, Alyson Klein responds to an anonymous query from an educator who participated in the publication’s Every Student Succeeds Act summit back in May: “Is highly qualified teacher still [a requirement] under ESSA?” The “short answer,” she says, is: “Nope, you can toss the phrase ‘highly qualified teacher’ into the trash, as far as the law is concerned.” ESSA “got rid of the requirement in the law it replaced, No Child Left Behind Act, that teachers must be highly qualified, which typically meant they needed to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they are teaching and state certification.” Instead, “states must come up with their own definition of an ‘effective teacher,’ ” and the “feds are explicitly prohibited from telling states what that can be.”

2 California district leveraging ESSA to help military children

Brennon Dixson at the Santa Clarita Valley Signal reports that the Castaic Union School District in California is “responding to the challenges and unique circumstances military children face on a daily basis” by implementing policies “to lessen the children’s impediments to success” through “academic resources, services, and opportunities for extracurricular and enrichment activities that are available to all district students.”

The “newly adopted regulations reflect the Every Student Succeeds Act, which mandates that military-connected students will be assigned a national identification number to facilitate the monitoring of their academic progress.” The regulations require “districts to issue an annual report card that includes state achievement results for such students,” as well as “optional language that could require the district to provide professional development related to the educational rights of military-connected students.”

3 Education funding inequity a persistent problem

Amelia Harper reports for Education Dive that “though federal funding has helped level the playing field in school spending over the years, a recently released report of school spending during the 2014-15 academic year reveals” that 25 percent of the poorest schools in the nation received 3.4 percent less in per-pupil spending than 25 percent of the wealthiest school districts. That inequity created a national funding gap of $449 per student.

Harper notes that under ESSA, “schools will have to meet mandates in December 2019 that require more financial transparency at the school level,” and a “look at that data should reveal more about where and why these inequities exist and may lead to a better solution.”

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