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Trump Administration Wants More Info on Three State ESSA Plans

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UPDATED

The Trump administration has given three states—Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico—a detailed list of information that they need to supply in order to get their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act approved.

And some of the asks—especially to Delaware—give clues as to how the U.S. Department of Education is interpreting parts of ESSA. For instance, the department wants Delaware to reconsider its proposed student achievement goals, since it doesn't consider them to be "ambitious." (ESSA calls for states to set "ambitious" achievement goals, but doesn't say what that means.)

And the department doesn't think ESSA allows states to be able to count science and social studies test scores toward a particular part of a school's academic rating, as Delaware wants to do.

The feds are also questioning whether states, including Delaware, can use Advanced Placement tests as a measure of college and career readiness, since the tests aren't in every school. That's a big deal because more than a dozen states have written AP into their plans. And some other measurements that states have choosen to gauge college readiness, like vocational programs  and dual enrollment, aren't available in every school, either. (More on all that below).

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been very vocal about the need for local authority in ESSA implementation, and her team designed an ESSA application that asked for the bare minimum of information on state plans. What's more, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ESSA architect and DeVos ally, told the National School Boards Association that DeVos would approve every state's ESSA plan. Meanwhile, civil rights advocates are worried that the Trump administration won't give state plans a thorough look.

UPDATE: Alexander is taking a close look at the feedback states received. "I'm reviewing the department's letters carefully, but I expect the secretary's actions to be consistent with the law," he said. 

The feedback on these first states indicates that the department is planning to set some limits on states, based on its interpretation of the law. But in some cases, those efforts could prove complicated, since key parts of ESSA are confusing or vague. And the Trump administration tossed Obama-era regulations that sought to clarify parts of the law.

Dale Chu, who is working with the Collaborative for Student Success to review state plans, was surprised by the level of detail that the department is asking for from states, given the secretary's rhetoric.

"The messaging that the states had been hearing up to the submission point was there was no reason a plan would not have been approved," said Chu, who is the vice president for policy and operations at America Succeeds, which works to get business involved in education.

But this early feedback, "wasn't as rubber-stampy as folks might have thought it would be," said Chu, who previously worked in state departments in Indiana and Florida. He expects that the 33 states that haven't yet turned in their applications will be "erring more on the side of providing more clarity and completeness to their plans."

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the feedback process seemed "fairly standard. ... It's a good sign that you actually have the federal government saying here are the things we need more information on."

So what is the department asking these first states to fix or provide more information on? Here's a quick rundown of some highlights; you also can click on the state name to see the feedback:

Delaware

  • The department is concerned that the state combines racial and ethnic subgroups in some parts of its plan. So-called super-subgroups are supposed to be a no-no under ESSA, according to Democratic staffers who wrote the law.
  • The department doesn't think the state set ambitious enough goals for student achievement, since under the state's system, only about half to two-thirds of students would be proficient by 2030. (It's worth noting that ESSA doesn't define "ambitious," so this could be a point of contention.) The department also doesn't think the state's goals for English-language proficiency are ambitious.  We wrote about ESSA plans and goals here.
  • Delaware is counting science and social studies test results as "academic indicators" in its system. The department's understanding of ESSA is that only reading and math should count. This matters for a wonky, but important reason: States are supposed to give "much greater weight" to academic factors than to other factors in rating schools.
  • The state gives schools a menu of options for how they can measure college-and-career readiness, which is one Delaware's indicators of student success. The department told Delaware that ESSA says every school must use the same measure, to make things easy to compare. That means things like AP tests are out. 

Nevada

  • The department wants the state to provide short-term goals for academic achievement, both for all students and each subgroup of students.
  • The state needs to explain how much weight it is giving to language arts as opposed to math when determining a school's overall score. 
  • The department also wants more information on how Nevada's "closing opportunity gaps" indicator would work.
  • The department wants Nevada to be more specific about what it will take for a school to get out of the lowest-performing status (what the law calls "comprehensive improvement").

New Mexico

  • The state needs to do a better job of describing its statewide rules for when a school no longer has to be considered low-performing.
  • The state needs to be more specific about how it would help schools ensure that low-income and minority students aren't taught at disproportionate rates by ineffective, or inexperienced teachers.
  • The state needs to do a better job of describing how it will make sure all students are given the opportunity to be ready for advanced math in 8th grade, as required under ESSA's testing regulations.

The states have 15 days to address these issues, which may not sound like a long time, given the list of asks. One possible reason for the short window: The department has 120 days to give states a firm yes or no on their plans, per the law. 


Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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