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Your Guide to Comments on the Draft ESSA Accountability Rules

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By Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa

Cancel that trip to the beach, U.S. Department of Education employees: The education community has turned in more than 20,000 comments on your draft regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As anyone bothering to read a wonky education blog during the dog days of August probably knows, the department released proposed regulations for accountability—arguably the most controversial and tricky part of ESSA—back in May. The agency gave educators, advocates and others until Aug. 1 to comment on their rules. It will take those comments into consideration before releasing final rules sometime this fall. 

If you have been paying attention to the education community's response to the department's proposed accountability rules, you won't be surprised by any of the big themes in the thousands upon thousands of comments.

State chiefs and governors, for instance, are concerned that the department's proposed timeline for identifying the lowest-performing schools is too ambitious and means holding schools accountable for student outcomes under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA's precedessor, and NCLB's waivers.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups are concerned that the department's proposed menu of ideas for states on how to pinpoint which schools have groups of students that are "consistently underperforming" is too loosey-goosey.

We took a look at the comments so you don't have to. OK, fine, we admit it—we have not read all 20,000-plus. (That would have taken both halves of Politics K-12 at least a week.) But we did take a close look at what some of the biggest-name education organizations were saying, and examine a good sample of comments from other folks.

Here are some highlights: 

Council of Chief State School Officers

As we have previously reported, CCSSO does not like that the proposed rules require schools to be identified for improvement based on data from the 2016-17 school year. And the group reiterates that concern in its comments, asking for the Education Department to allow schools to first be identified for improvement in 2018-19, based on 2017-18 data.

CCSSO also says that the requirement in the rules for a single, summative rating for each school is a bad idea, saying that it would squash creative accountability efforts at the state level, such as a "dashboard" approach that displays performance on multiple indicators without requiring a final rating for each school.

"The final regulation should be clear that it is at the discretion of the state to use a dashboard to display performance and progress on multiple indicators or use a single summative rating," the group says in its comments, adding that it should be up to states to decide how prominent these ratings are on school report cards.

The state chiefs' group also expresses several concerns about the reporting requirements for out-of-field and inexperienced teachers working with low-income students. And CCSSO says that while reporting on the number of English-language learners who do not attain English proficiency in five years is a good idea, setting a "maximum timeline" for those students to attain proficiency is not.

National Governors Association

Last year, the NGA gave ESSA its first full endorsement of any federal legislation in nearly two decades. But the governors' group has several concerns about the proposed accountability rules.

ESSA_button.jpgLike the state chiefs, the NGA says the timeline for identifying struggling schools is too ambitious, and wants to allow 2018-19 to be the first year schools are flagged for improvement. And it wants the new school quality and student success indicator to play a bigger role in judging school performance, stating, "The department's proposal limits the universe of high-quality indicators, doubles down on test scores, and effectively upends state authority regarding indicator weights."

The NGA says the U.S. secretary of education should not have the power to approve a state plan to address standardized test participation rates that dip below 95 percent, if states choose not to pick one of the three options laid out in the draft rules.

And the proposed rules' requirement that schools with subgroup of students deemed underperforming for two straight years be identified as "consistently underperforming" improperly takes away the power of states to decide on the right timeline, the NGA says.

National Association of State Boards of Education

Writing on behalf of NASBE, Executive Director Kris Amundson says the Education Department should not "displace" states' decision-making about accountability ratings, and that means there should not be a requirement for a summative rating for each school.

Like many organizations, the group wants data from the 2017-18 school year to be the first to identify struggling schools, not 2016-17.

And NASBE wants a light federal touch when comes to how states report test-participation numbers and the strategies they use to deal with low participation rates, saying the proposed rule "misapplies the statute, diminishes community concerns, and may make it harder for states to develop strategies for ensuring assessment participation rates remain high."

Council of the Great City Schools

The organization's comments, written by Michael Casserly, the executive director, questioned the department's proposed implementation timeline. The council, which represents urban district leaders, also questioned a provision calling for schools to be divided into three different performance categories.  The group also argued that could lead to over-identification of low-performing schools. And CGCS is not a fan of the department's proposed regulation on transportation for foster kids

Another set of comments from CGCS centered on English-language learners. The council doesn't want to see the department require states to come up with a statewide standard set of criteria for when a student can "exit" ELL status. It also doesn't love the idea of setting a timeline for attaining English-language proficiency. The council is essentially worried that a one-size-fits-all approach on both those issues will "result in the lowest common statewide denominator for removing students prematurely from specialized services." The council does, however, like a proposal to keep ELLs who have attained proficiency in the ELL subgroup for four years, for accountability and reporting purposes. 

AASA, the School Superintendents Association

The group is one of a chorus of folks not happy with the requirement for a single, summative rating for schools, which it argues would lack "nuance." And AASA doesn't want to see the department raise the minimum "n" size—or number of students that have to be in a particular group for it to count for accountability purposes—above 30, which is what's already in the proposed regulations. AASA also thinks the department is being too prescriptive when it comes to how to figure testing participation into accountability systems, and in defining which schools have "consistently underperforming" groups of students and therefore need interventions.

AASA also thinks the department is being too prescriptive when it comes to "evidence-based" interventions under ESSA. The regulations call for districts to pick interventions with at least a promising track record of improving student outcomes. AASA is worried that this might be too limiting. And AASA isn't a fan of language that would require low-performing schools to approve of a turnaround plan a district lays out for them. More here.

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National Education Association

In a nutshell, the proposed accountability regulations are too close to the previous version of the law, the NCLB Act, for the union's taste. The union thinks the regulations don't give states enough flexibility in setting academic goals and would add an onerous requirement that states make sure their new indicator of school quality or student success is grounded in research.  NEA also thinks the department was way too prescriptive when it comes to listing possible "punishments" for schools with high rates of parents opting their children out of standardized testing. What's more, dozens of NEA members from around the country seconded those comments by submitting them under their own names.

And the union is miffed that the department is calling for schools with low-performing subgroups to face serious sanctions after three years. (ESSA calls for a "state determined" timeline.) NEA also doesn't take kindly to the fact that the department's proposal appears to imply that states should come up with a list of approved interventions for struggling schools. Dozens of NEA members submitted their own comments echoing these points. More from Steve Sawchuk of Teacher Beat fame here.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten

Weingarten isn't so thrilled that the department is requiring districts crafting plans for low-performing schools to consider how many inexperienced, out-of-field teachers a school has, and how much money they spend per student. There are a lot of factors that could lead to poor performance, she argues, so why single out those two? Also, Weingarten thinks the department is overstepping its bounds in calling for states to define "ineffective teachers." She's worried states will keep relying on test scores to do this, as they have under NCLB waivers. Plus, Weingarten has concerns about the timeline and requirement for a single summative rating. 

Learning Policy Institute

The education policy think tank run by Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University professor emeritus and researcher, says that states should not require that students' academic performance be measured solely on grade-level proficiency. The group says that, among other problems, the focus on this proficiency metric encourages schools to focus largely on students hovering around the threshold for profiency, at the expense of low-performing students.

"Furthermore, research found that the improvement gap was largest in the low-achieving schools, where focusing on students near the proficiency cut score came at the expense of attention to the lowest-achieving students," the Learning Policy Institute states.

Like several other groups, the institute weighs in against requiring single summative ratings and the proposed timeline. And the organiation wants parameters for how states define "out-of-field" and inexperienced teachres. 

Education Trust

CEO Kati Haycock says Education Trust, which advocates for robust accountability and reporting requirements, supports several key aspects of the proposed regulations, such as the requirement for a single summative school rating and the greater weight academic indicators have with respect to identifying schools in need of improvement.

But the group also has concerns with the draft that we've previously discussed with Education Trust. For example, it wants the final regulations changed to require that "consistently underperforming" subgroups of students be defined by their progress toward state goals, not by how they perform compared to the statewide student average.

Like the NGA and CCSSO, Education Trust wants schools to be flagged for improvement based on 2017-18 data, not 2016-17 data as the draft rules require: "Given that new state accountability systems will not be approved until 2017, this requirement would essentially mean that schools will be identified based on expectations that are not yet in place."

Other changes the group wants made are the inclusion of access to advanced coursework in studies of resource disparities of districts and schools, and for "more meaningful exit criteria" for states in determining which schools can leave "needs-improvement" lists.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

The NAACP's education advocacy arm focuses a lot of attention on school quality and student success indicators.

For example, the group wants the department, in its final regulations, to "[p]rovide more instruction to states on how to define, measure, and advance positive school climates as an indicator of school quality and student success."

The regulations should also discourage states from using discipline practices to exclude students from annual testing.

And it wants to encourage states to include LGBTQ students, and those in the juvenile-justice system, as subgroups in their accountability systems.

"LGBTQ students, particularly students of color, are persistently harassed, bullied, and subjected to harsh disciplinary practices," wrote President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill, along with two other staffers.

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Writing on behalf of roughly 30 advocacy groups, the Leadership Conference wants the final ESSA regulations to "provide more direction on how states should assist local educational agencies with improving school environments for student learning."

The organization also wants more-robust regulations when it comes to making progress in "ensuring the promise of resource equity." And the Leadership Conference stresses equity again when it comes to students' access to "strong teachers."

"State definitions of 'underperforming' for any subgroup of students must be based on the statewide goals and interim progress targets," wrote Liz King, education policy director. 

Badass Teachers Association

Writing as a member of the union splinter group, which opposes high-stakes testing policies, Chris Willems says the group believes the proposed regulations focus too narrowly on English/language arts and math to the detriment of arts, music, and other subject areas.

And the group is highly critical of the draft rules' approach to test-participation requirements. The association flatly says states should not be held accountable for failing to meet any particular participation rate. It also says that parents have the right to opt their children out of state exams under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"To punish schools that do not meet this participation rate is to deny the rights of parents as well as falsely hold accountable schools that have no right to dictate these choices," the organization states.

There were also plenty of comments on other topics:

  • Dozens of brief comments rebuked the Obama administration for supporting the Common Core State Standards, or asked the department to get rid of them. (Legally, under ESSA, it can't do that.) Here's a sample: "No Common Core. No Backdoor Common Core. Stop this regulation now!" wrote Rob Mellot, who didn't identify himself as an educator, advocate, or as part of an organization.
  • Some wrote in asking for more focus on the arts in the regulations. Under ESSA and under the proposed regulations, states can choose to make access to arts education part of their accountability systems. Some commentors wanted to see this point be made more explicit in the regulations. And some want the department to make it clear states can incorporate particular areas within the arts, like music or visual art.
  •  At least one teacher who commented, Daniel Plonsey, chided Education Secretary John B. King Jr., for his support of testing. "I conclude that Mr. King's new version of 'test and punish' will do great harm to public education," Plonsey wrote. (Keeping annual tests in ESSA was Congress' decision, not King's, although he was in favor of it.) 
  • Many teachers, parents, and counselors wrote in to emphasize the importance of engaging the education community in crafting ESSA plans. 

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