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ESSA Timeline, School Ratings, Standards Issues Dominate Senate Hearing

 

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If you thought critiques from Congress and the education community were fading over the U.S. Department of Education's proposed accountability regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act, including the timeline for implementing it and its proposals on standards and school ratings, think again.

Those three core criticisms dominated discussion at a hearing Thursday examining state and local feedback on ESSA implementation, after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and an ESSA architect teed them all up in his opening statement. 

The Timeline

Alexander wants the agency to announce, as soon as possible, that there's been a change to the timeline for identifying low-performing schools under ESSA. Alexander said that it was always his intention that states would implement their accountability systems in the 2017-18 school year, but not identify their lowest-performing schools until the year after, when they had one year of data under their belts. The department's proposal would require both to happen in the 2017-18 school year.

He asked Stephen Pruitt, the commissioner of education in Kentucky, who testified before the panel, whether he would be able to better implement the law with more time to decide which schools need the most help.

In a nutshell, Pruitt said yes, he would. Kentucky has already identified some low-performing schools and "wouldn't leave them in the lurch." But more time would help the state get input from educators and figure out how their systems should work. 

Quick tutorial: ESSA is supposed to go fully into effect in the 2017-18 school year. Waivers from the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, end this summer. The 2016-17 school year is supposed to be a transition time between the two laws.

The department's proposed regulations would give states until the 2018-19 to identify schools where certain groups of students are struggling for so-called "targeted support." But they would require states to single out their lowest-performing schools for so-called "comprehensive support," right from the jump, in time for the 2017-18 school year. States say that would mean they'd have to rely on old, NCLB-era metrics to pick out those schools. 

Alexander isn't the only ESSA architect concerned about the department's proposed timeline. At a previous hearing in late June, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, agreed that the current proposed timeline is problematic. (This time around, though, Murray didn't go on at length about the issue. Instead, she said the department should ensure its regulations require states to intervene in any school where a particular group of students is struggling.)

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., who testified before the committee at the June hearing, said he would take a look and decide whether changes were needed before the regulations are finalized.

But if there is going to be a change, it sounds like Alexander wants the department to announce it as soon as possible so that states can plan. He doesn't want the feds to wait all the way to November, when the final regulations will likely be released, before tweaking the timeline.  

So what says the department? The agency is still looking for feedback on the accountability regulations, said Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman, in an email. "The timeline questions are complex, and we would welcome feedback on the timeline, and how to help states, districts,  schools and educators transition as quickly and successfully as possible to the new law," she wrote. 

Summative Ratings

Another controversial of the department's proposed regulations on accountability would require states to come up with a single rating for their schools. This could be an overall number or score, or it could mean putting schools into a category—for instance, "excellent" or "needs improvement."

Alexander said he thinks the department is going beyond ESSA in pushing for a summative rating. "It's pretty clear to me that the summative rating requirement is not in the law," he said. Maybe the department made a "mistake" he said.

And Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, noted that states including Kentucky, Virginia, and California, are already on the road to developing "dashboards" that break out different indicators to give what she sees as a more nuanced portrait of a school's performance.

(To be clear, the department's proposed regulations would require states to provide an both an overall rating for schools and the specific data that makes up that rating, so parents would likely see how their child's school was doing in a range of areas, as well as overall.)

Darling-Hammond likened these dashboards to a school report card, which gives students a grade for each subject.

"I never asked any of my schools for a single summative score on my child," she said.

Not everyone thinks summative ratings are a bad idea. Alison Harris Welcher, the director of school leadership for Project L.I.F.T. in North Carolina, said she understand that the technique is controversial, but she said it still represents the best way to offer different types of schools the support they need.

But she said, "I see no world in which we can empower our parents and communities to hold us accountable, offer support, and advocate for change without them," she said.

Standards

Federal control over academic standards is probably one of the toughest issues on the table, considering the blowback the Obama administration got when it encouraged states to adopt the Common Core State Standards.

ESSA calls for states to set challenging standards that get students ready for college courses without remediation. The department's proposed accountability regulations ask states to provide "evidence" that they are meeting this requirement.

Alexander isn't a fan of that regulation, since he worries it could open the door to the federal government rejecting standards they don't deem challenging enough. He noted that ESSA expressly prohibits the education secretary from interfering with state standards, in several different places in the law.

And Gail Pletnick, the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School district in Surprise, Ariz., wondered in her testimony if this requirement equates "to the ability to reject the state developed standards based on someone's opinion they are not challenging?"  

It's worth noting that these critiques aren't brand new. Andrew has a breakdown on the pieces of the regulations that worry members of Congress the most here. 


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