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Could the Transition to ESSA Begin Earlier Than Expected for Some Schools?

UPDATED

We've reported many times that the 2017-18 academic year will be the first year that the Every Student Succeeds Act will be fully in place. In practical terms, that means the 2016-17 year will be a transition time for states. But the proposed ESSA accountability regulations the U.S. Department of Education released last week add a wrinkle to that timeline. And at least one state chief has expressed his displeasure with the way the department has handled this question of transitioning to ESSA. 

That potential for an even tighter timeline has to do with schools that states must identify as needing "comprehensive support." These are:

• the lowest-performing 5 percent of a state's Title I schools, those with relatively large shares of low-income students;

• high schools that graduate less than two-thirds of their students; and

• Title I schools with one or more "consistently underperforming" subgroups of students that are performing as poorly as all students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools and have not improved after previous interventions. 

ESSA-Obama-Signs-blog-thumb-500x333-16391.jpg

Those schools would have to be identified beginning in the 2017-18 school year. But in a summary of the proposed regulations, the Education Department states that "schools identified for the 2017-2018 school year would be identified, at a minimum, on the basis of their performance in the 2016-2017 school year." (See page 39 of the notice of proposed rulemaking.)

That concerns Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Although CCSSO has responded favorably to the proposed regulations in many respects, Minnich said in a Tuesday interview that many states might not finalize their accountability plans under ESSA until relatively late in the 2016-17 academic year or after that year is over. (Depending on states' progress in developing plans, the rules say that states would be required to submit their finished plans in March or July 2017 for the department's approval.)

It would be a tricky thing for schools to go through the 2016-17 year uncertain about what data from that year would impact their status for the purposes of accountability in the 2017-18 year, Minnich told me. It'd be better, and more fair, for schools to know that beforehand, he said.

"The '17-18 school year should really be the first year of the data that's used," Minnich said. "At the end of the '17-18 school year, we should identify schools, not at the beginning."

UPDATEKentucky's schools chief, Stephen Pruitt, made his anxieties about the place of 2016-17 in ESSA accountability very clear in a letter he sent to Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. last month, before the ESSA accountability rules were released to the public.

In his May 16 letter, Pruitt wrote that in a May 5 phone call with Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to King, "I was informed that Kentucky's new accountability system, or disconnected portions of it, must be in place in 2016-17 in order to identify the lowest performing schools to receive turnaround supports in the following school year (2017-18)." Pruitt said he doubted most states were aware of the more aggressive timeline, and that he assumed Whalen had "let slip what is being discussed behind closed doors at USED." He added:

"Implementing a new system in 2017-18 is already a monumental task on an aggressive timeline, but one that is obtainable for most states. No state will be able to implement a new system that takes full advantage of ESSA by the 2016-17 school year as implied by USED staff.  If this is the true intent of USED, you will be forcing states to continue the status quo of their current systems, or giving states no option but to only implement minor tweaks to existing systems. To use a Kentucky expression, existing state systems are already being held together with 'duct tape and bailing wire' as a result of the failings of NCLB and the resulting USED waiver system."

Pruitt copied U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and the chairman of the Senate education committee, Kentucky's congressional delegation, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and others on the letter. Politics K-12 received this letter from Kentucky after the Education Department released their draft rules, so it appears the general issue, at least, is still clearly concerning to Pruitt.

To be clear, in the portion of the proposed ESSA rules describing states' accountability plans, the Education Department wrote that the rules governing these plans "take effect beginning with the 2017-2018 school year." (See page 6 of the notice of proposed rulemaking.) So on the face of things, it doesn't appear the accountability provisions themselves that worry Pruitt go into effect earlier than anticipated. Still, the requirement that 2016-17 school year data be used for some 2017-18 accountability decisions looks like it could be a relatively touchy topic for states going forward.

We've asked the Education Department if it has a response to Pruitt's letter. We'll update this post if we hear back. UPDATE: In a statement, the department said, "Like educators, parents, and many others, we're eager to implement a new, broader vision of accountability that goes beyond just test scores as soon as possible. That said, in order to provide time for the transition, our proposed regulations call for new systems to be in place in 2017-18, not 2016-17. We welcome comment on this timeline as we work together to implement this new, broader vision of accountability as swiftly and smartly as possible."

Under Minnich's preferred scenario, some might have a different concern—whether 2017-18 would be the first "full" year of ESSA if schools needing comprehensive support are not identified before that year starts. But if the timeline for the proposed accountability rules hold up, schools will have to focus on their performance for 2016-17 when it comes to ESSA, even if the full transition to the law won't be complete until 2017-18.

Read Pruitt's full letter below:

Photo: President Barack Obama, flanked by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, and the committee's ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., signs the Every Student Succeeds Act last December.


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