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D.C. Approves ESSA Accountability Plan That Emphasizes Testing Standards & Transparency

Photo Credit: Getty Images

March 22, 2017

Talking Points

Advocates tout emphasis on growth, standard measure for charters + district schools

Opponents say 70% weight on test scores is too much, doesn’t take advantage of ESSA flexibility

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Updated Wednesday, 8 p.m.
The D.C. State Board of Education voted 6–3 Wednesday evening to approve the city’s proposed ESSA plan.
“We’ve come a long way with this plan, but in the interests of all of our students in all parts of the city, we must go farther,” said Markus Batchelor, one of the three members who voted against the plan. (The other no votes came from Ruth Wattenberg and Joe Weedon, who with Markus wrote an op-ed earlier this week describing their opposition.)
Several members of the board said they wished the plan included a measure of high school growth and a school climate survey, but those measures just aren’t ready, and delaying until the September submission deadline wouldn’t change that.
Others also addressed what they described as their own failure to reach out to a broad cross-section of city residents for their opinions on the plan, and vowed to do better as officials begin to implement the new accountability system.
“No matter what side the vote falls upon, it’s incumbent upon all of us to come together to help the families that need it most,” said Ward 5 member Mark Jones. 
 
Washington, D.C., leaders tonight will consider the city’s final Every Student Succeeds Act plan, previewing fights likely to reoccur across the country as states work toward an early-April deadline for submission to the Department of Education.
The plan, written by the office of State Superintendent Hanseul Kang, will come before the nine-member Board of Education, where it will likely pass but not without opposition, primarily over its strong emphasis on test scores.
Advocates say the plan is strong: it focuses on student achievement and, responding to community concerns, more heavily weights student growth rates on tests over proficiency. It would rate district and charter schools on the same five-star system — key in a city with a broad school choice movement, universal enrollment, and a lottery system but without an easily understood metric to compare schools now.
"To me, it’s a strong plan, it’s clear, and I feel like at this point the discussion going on is a textbook case of the perfect being the enemy of the good,” said Abigail Smith, who served as D.C.’s deputy mayor for education from 2012 to 2014. “This absolutely meets the bar for a good plan that is going to be helpful to us as a city.”
Though academic results in D.C. have improved dramatically in recent years — the city’s scores on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress are the fastest-improving among large city districts in the country —  large achievement gaps remain.
The graduation rate for white students in the city is almost 20 points higher than for black students, for example, and while 79 percent of white students scored at a level 4 or higher on the PARCC English tests in grades 3–8 in 2014–15, just 16.6 percent of their black peers did.
Unlike the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law, which judged schools solely on their ability to get all children to a proficient level on standardized tests, ESSA includes measures of proficiency (raw scores) and growth (progress) on those tests, plus at least one new non-academic measure of school climate, such as attendance or access to advanced coursework.
How much to weight growth versus proficiency, and how much to weight that new metric versus academic measures, is at the heart of D.C.’s fight, one that’s likely to continue to crop up around the country.
“Now that the state really has control of the accountability under ESSA, they should be augmenting the standardized test component with much more authentic measures of the learning climate in schools,” said Mark Simon, an analyst with the Economic Policy Institute and a former D.C. public schools parent who opposes the current plan.
(The 74: Green Dot CEO — As ESSA Scales Down Federal Oversight, Educators and Local Leaders Must Rise to the Challenge)
D.C.’s plan would heavily emphasize academic measures in accountability — 70 percent on test scores, split between growth (40 percent) and proficiency (30 percent) for elementary and middle schools, and split between proficiency rates (50 percent) and graduation rates (20 percent) for high schools.
High school students are tested only once in four years, unlike the annual required tests in grades 3–8, and may take different courses in math. The plan pledges to “work to explore all possible options in developing a high school growth measure, and we are committed to implementing it in the future.”
(The 74: Why You Should Care About the Growth-vs.-Proficiency Debate)
That’s down from an earlier draft that had test scores accounting for 80 percent of school scores, evenly divided between growth and proficiency. (By comparison, legislators in neighboring Maryland are considering a bill that would limit test scores to 51 percent of a school’s accountability rating.)
(The 74: Is a Maryland Teachers Union Organizer Shepherding Weak ESSA Accountability Bill?)
Despite the change, there’s still too much emphasis on test scores, and not enough on student growth, three members of the board who oppose the plan wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post yesterday.
“The deep inequities in our city almost guarantee that students will start at various levels of proficiency. How well each school supports every student in growth, no matter where that student starts, is what’s important to parents and families — and it’s the accurate, fair way to judge school quality. In other words, what we believe matters most in evaluating a school is the ‘growth’ made by its students,” the members wrote.
(The 74: Could the Every Student Succeeds Act Break the Link Between Poverty and Bad School Ratings?)
The board members — Ruth Wattenberg from Ward 3 (affluent neighborhoods in D.C.’s upper northwest quadrant), Joe Weedon from Ward 6 (Capitol Hill), and Markus Batchelor from Ward 8 (Anacostia) — also say the plan doesn’t include enough emphasis on other measures of a well-rounded education.
After the 70 percent for test scores and graduation rates, an additional 5 percent of schools’ ratings would be based on how well the school serves English-language learners.
The remaining 25 percent would be based on “school environment,” including chronic absenteeism and attendance. A yet-to-be-determined measure of “access and opportunities” that would give schools multiple options to highlight how they’re providing a well-rounded education will be used for school accountability starting in the 2019–20 year.
Ratings of pre-K programs for schools that have them would also be included in the school environment measure. D.C. has more 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool than any state in the country.
(The 74: The Pre-K Capital Where Nearly All 4-Year-Olds [and Most 3-Year-Olds!] Go to School)
Fifty education and civil rights leaders in D.C., including several former Obama administration officials, wrote to the state board Monday urging them to adopt the plan.
The plan will “create a more transparent, equitable, and effective accountability system for the District’s children,” they wrote in a letter coordinated by the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.
Opponents say the city should delay submitting the plan to the federal government until a second September deadline, to give more time to create a new plan with a better focus on school climate, but advocates say a delay would do little more than kick the can to the fall, making it more difficult for teachers and school administrators to implement the new standards.
“Let’s give our educators a respectful amount of time to prepare for the new accountability system … and not use the common delay tactic of ‘we need more time.’ The truth is that adults have been saying that for decades, and never getting around to actually helping the kids who need it most,” said Catharine Bellinger, director of DFER D.C.