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Opt-Out Rates Could Significantly Distort State Accountability in ESEA Deal

Testing opt-outs became one of the most high-profile topics in education over the past year. So does the pending agreement to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act require states to use test participation rates in accountability?

The short answer: Yes, but there is some seriously wide latitude here for states. And that could spell trouble down the road, experts say, should ESSA become law.

What's more, the opt-out langauge could create further legal and regulatory ambiguity in the proposal, in which other accountability requirements are already subject to dispute.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the name of the deal to reauthorize ESEA, would require schools to test 95 percent of all students and 95 percent of students in subgroups of students like English-language learners. That's the same as in the current version of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act. And the ESSA would require test participation to be a factor in states' accountability systems. 

But here's the catch: The ESSA language allows states to set the weight of test participation in their accountability systems, relative to other factors, including academic factors (like tests and graduation rates) and other factors that get more at students opportunity to learn and post-secondary readiness. It's not a stand-alone requirement.

And there doesn't appear to be oversight power for the U.S. Department of Education on this issue—discretion over that weight would lie "solely" in the hands of individual states. So under the current ESSA draft language, a state could in theory decide to make the 95-percent test-particiation requirement just 1 percent of its accountability system. Or .01 percent. You get the idea. 

If you're guessing that accountability "hawks" are grouchy about this language, you're right.

Their argument goes like this: The ESSA draft could encourage schools to prevent low-performing students from taking the state exams and actually improve their accountability rating.

That's because in states where test participation rates would count for little or next to nothing in their accountability systems, schools might lose a few points on the test-participation measurement. But they could reap the benefits elsewhere in their state's accountability system where their artifically-inflated test scores would help. In other words, you could encourage only the smart kids to take the test, get penalized a bit for that, but end up with stellar test scores.

And there is another issue: States could go in the other direction and place a relatively large weight on test participation. That would mean all other factors would become a smaller part of the picture, including academic indicators like tests and graduation rates. So essentially, schools could get big points just for getting kids to show up on test day, even if they bomb the exams.

"That's why it should be a separate requirement. You're creating an incentive where schools might not want to include everyone," said Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education, who's skeptical about the draft ESSA language in general.

Aldeman, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, said his preference would be for federal law to put a greater emphasis on making sure low-income and academically struggling students in particular take the exams. And he said states should also be able to take a closer look at schools with low test participation rates before taking any further action.

If you're thinking that Aldeman's scenario unfairly assumes a fair amount of bad faith on the part of schools, he pointed to recent research on the importance of incentives in K-12 accountability, such as in the Winter 2016 edition of Education Next

But that argument won't sit well with people like Minnesota chief Brenda Cassellius, who rejects the idea that states simply won't handle increased power over accountability responsibly. Speaking generally, she told us that states have proven in recent years that they're ready and willing to hold schools accountable in a responsible way. 


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