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ESSA and the States: Florida, Kentucky Have Their Own Ideas on Accountability

Ever since the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law last December, policy wonks and others have wondered exactly how states would react to the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Act, which in several respects is a significant departure from the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act. While for the most part it's too early to broadly characterize those reactions, bills in at least two states show that getting states entirely on board with ESSA might be a challenge.

First, let's go to Florida. As our colleague Catherine Gewertz reported March 2, Sunshine State lawmakers are considering a bill, Senate Bill 1360, that would allow districts the option of administering the ACT Aspire exam instead of the state standardized exam, the Florida Standards Assessment, in grades 3-8, beginning in the 2016-17 school year. Districts could then choose to administer the ACT Aspire in grades 3-8, for example, and students would take that exam, unless parents notified the district that they preferred their student to take the Florida Standards Assessment instead. 

The bill would also give the districts the option of administering the ACT, the PSAT or NMSQT, and the SAT in high school instead of the state exams—once again, if districts were to choose to give one of those tests, parents could notify the district if they preferred their child to take the FSA instead. (A student could take the SAT as an alternative only after meeting certain requirements.) 

So what's the problem? ESSA requires states to administer the same state exam in grades 3-8. Schools are not supposed to give districts—or parents—a choice of one test or another. The Florida bill would directly undermine that federal requirement. At the high school level, there is some new flexibility in ESSA—districts can choose to offer a "nationally recognized test" in place of the state exam. But all students in a district must take the same test—there isn't supposed to be a menu of options within a district or school. 

Senate Bill 1360 cleared the Senate appropriations committee on March 1 and is sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, a Republican and influential state lawmaker on K-12.

Next, we'll head to Kentucky. For the past few weeks, Bluegrass State lawmakers have been considering Senate Bill 1, part of which deals with how low-performing schools are identified and classified,  how graduation rates are used to calculate school performance, and what goes on school report cards. It's not clear if the state's vision lines up with ESSA in those areas, according to a February blog post from Susan Perkins Weston of the Prichard Committee, a nonprofit K-12 advocacy group in Kentucky. 

Senate Bill 1 passed the Kentucky Senate on Feb. 17.

How might the Florida and Kentucky situations differ? Despite the differences between Kentucky's Senate Bill 1 and ESSA, Weston says the bill won't necessarily cost the state Title I money if it becomes law.  

On its face, the situation appears trickier for Florida. If different students took different "state exams" in grades 3-8 in the same school, it's hard to see how they would square that with ESSA's accountability requirements, regardless of how well it fits into the state's own accountability system. (Hat tip to the Fordham Institute's Mike Petrilli for alerting us to the problem.)

Florida education chief Pam Stewart has expressed her own, separate concern that the ACT and SAT don't align with the Common Core State Standards as well as the FSA. 

Here's a Florida-related reminder about Massachusetts and testing: Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education put some of the Bay State's Title I funding on "high risk" status because the state did not administer a single statewide exam last year in grades 3-8.

Massachusetts allowed districts to choose between the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test and the state's previous exam, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems (MCAS) for the 2014-15 school year. The Massachusetts state school board voted to have districts that gave the PARCC exam last year give it again this spring, while districts that gave MCAS last year could do so again, or switch to PARCC—but those districts could only switch to PARCC for grades 3-8 this spring. 

The Education Department said Massachusetts must show it gave the same statewide test in grades 3-8 by May 31 of this year, or risk losing some Title I funding. 

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