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What Happens if Schools and Districts Miss New Academic Goals? Maybe Nothing

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We need to talk about those goals. 

The long-term targets states have put forward in the Every Student Succeeds Act have gotten a lot of attention, positive and negative. What's a goal? Think about things like 75 percent of students scoring proficient in English/language arts in 13 years, or getting a certain share of kids to graduate on time in eight years.

But there's something else you should know here: In several situations there may not be any consequences for missing these big targets.

Let's focus on districts first. Under ESSA, if a district falls short of reaching a goal on any particular indicator, nothing has to happen to that district. By contrast, under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA's predecessor, the adequate yearly progress targets applied to both schools and districts. 

And what about schools? Nevada plans to use its goals two different ways in school accountability. They want to use them when identifying schools for interventions, and for awarding overall points in school ratings. But there's nothing forcing states to incorporate goals directly in this sort of way into ratings and other policies impacting individual schools. 

"ESSA gives states a lot more flexibility in how goals are used and how prominent they are in state accountability systems" than No Child Left Behind, said Anne Hyslop, an Education Department official in the Obama administration who now works at Chiefs for Change. 

ESSA technically requires achievement and academic indicators to be based on these goals, but in practice they can be aspirational. In fact, weakening the link between goals and consequences for schools began before ESSA, Hyslop notes, when the Obama administration's waivers saved schools from the most severe consequences of missing out on academic goals. So ESSA sort of continues a trend and doesn't start a new one. In general, goals are less high-stakes now than under No Child Left Behind. 

So is this a good or bad thing? In Hyslop's view, states can use those goals to create aligned (and helpful) accountability systems, even if they don't require interventions or other consequences for schools that miss them. And states can also use interim goals to identify and even reward schools that are clearly on the right track, even if they might ultimately fall short of the long-term targets. A key feature of any system for school leaders, Hyslop noted, is to "have a clear sense of what performance expectations are." 


Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes


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