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States, Feds Clash on Transition From NCLB to ESSA

UPDATED

State K-12 leaders busily trying to transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act are beginning to worry that the U.S. Department of Education is bent on trying to enforce the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers said in an interview Thursday.

The department, though, says that the two laws include many of the same requirements when it comes to test quality and equity. More on that below.  

Minnich said states are trying to move toward testing and accountability systems that embrace the flexibilities of ESSA, which gives states much more leeway in both areas. They should be given some room to make those moves.

"There's definitely some concern about enforcement of the old law as we move towards the new law," said Minnich, who also said the department has listened carefully to states' concerns over its proposed ESSA regulations. "I don't see a way to transition to a new system if you are worried about enforcement of the old system."

States, he said, are "trying to be good actors" and think through new systems. "We gotta have better systems, and the only way to do that is to leave the old system behind," he explained. 

As Exhibits A and B, Minnich pointed to Kentucky and Illinois, each of which have been warned they might lose a portion of their federal funding because of what the department sees as problems with testing quality and equal access. (More on just what those are below).

The department, however, has a different view. 

"Both laws contain the same requirement that states administer an annual assessment to all students in specific grades and subjects," Takirra Winfield, an Education Department spokeswoman said in a statement. Those states were cited, she said, for problems with requirements that are consistent across both laws. 

And, Winfield said, ESSA "has a lot of potential to help states design and implement a broader, more well-rounded vision of educational excellence and accountability." The department, she said, wants to help states move forward on that.   

So what's the deal with the specific states that Minnich mentioned, Kentucky and Illinois? 

Kentucky has had conditions placed on its funding for disadvantaged and special education students because its science test, aligned to its revamped science standards, doesn't include levels for "basic" "proficient" and "advanced," as required under NCLB. The department has essentially told Kentucky to add those levels in, or go back to its old test.*

(This gets into the weeds, but ESSA also makes it clear that states are supposed to differentiate school performance on state tests. Specifically, the new law says states need to come up with achievement standards for math, science, and reading, including at least three performance levels for each of those subjects. The department's proposed accountability regulations also call for states to come up with at least three levels of performance overall for each school.)

Kentucky is in the process of switching to yet another, deeper science test, so differentiating performance levels at this point doesn't seem to make much sense, a Kentucky department spokeswoman told the Louisville Courier-Journal. And going back to the state's old test isn't a great option, either, since it's aligned to totally different standards, she added.

Meanwhile, this year, Illinois, which is also getting ready to try a new assessment system, is on high risk status, because the state let its districts choose from a menu of high school tests, in part because of budgetary constraints.

That's not okay under NCLB, which requires every kid in a state in the same grade to take the same test. ESSA, though, allows for some leeway there, too—districts can offer a "nationally recognized" high school test to their students instead of the state exam. The Land of Lincoln apparently noted that to the department. But the administration explained that the new requirement doesn't go into effect until after the 2016-17 school year. And, even at that point, there are certain strings attached, the department says. Check out Illinois' letter from the department here

*Clarification: We initially said Kentucky was placed on "high risk status." But the department has simply placed "conditions" on their federal money. The post has been updated to reflect that distinction, as well as to reflect that ESSA itself, and not just the proposed accountability regulations from the department, call for three levels of performance on state tests. 

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