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Can States Use Science Tests to Rate Schools Under ESSA?

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There's been a ton of confusion lately about whether and how states can incorporate science, social studies, and other subjects into their systems for rating schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

The upshot is that, yes, states can indeed use science, social studies, the arts, and other subjects beyond reading and math for accountability. But there are some caveats when it comes to just how they do that. (More below.)

First, some background: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos got pushback last month when her team told four of the 17 states that have submitted ESSA plans so far—Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, and Tennessee—that their vision for incorporating science into their accountability plans didn't pass muster. Advocates for science teachers sent DeVos' team an angry letter, saying they thought this was a poor policy choice.

What does the law actually say on this? Let's take a look:

ESSA requires states to use a bunch of different factors to sort out which schools are high-fliers, and which may need extra help. And those factors look different for high schools as opposed to elementary and middle schools. States can use science test scores to judge both kinds of schools. But they need to meet certain requirements.   

Raings for elementary and middle schools must include:

  • An "academic achievement" indicator. That must be straight-up reading and math test scores. But it can't be science scores or social studies test scores, according to the department's take on the law. (Staffers who wrote ESSA agree.)
  • Some other academic factor, which ESSA nerds like to call the "second academic indicator." States have some flexibility here. They could pick growth on reading and math tests, closing achievement gaps, science scores, social studies scores, a hodge-podge of those things, or something else entirely.
  • English language proficiency
  • An indicator of school quality or student success. States have a lot of leeway on this one. Many want to include chronic absenteeism, or school climate. But science test scores, social studies test scores, and even physical education can also be part of the mix here too.  

Ratings for high schools must include:

  • An "academic achievement" indicator. That must be straight-up reading and math test scores. But it can't be science scores or social studies scores, according to the department's take on the law. (Staffers who wrote ESSA agree.)
  • Graduation rates.
  • English-language proficiency
  • An indicator of school quality or student success. And, as with elementary and middle schools, states have a lot of flexibility on this one. Many want to include chronic absenteeism, college-and-career readiness, or school climate. But science test scores, social studies test scores, and even physical education can also be part of the mix here too.

Bottom Line: Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, and Tennessee, and other states can use science test scores. They just can't be part of the "academic achievement" indicator. Science scores can be used as an indicator of school quality and student success, or as the second academic indicator for elementary and middle schools. A very technical, but important, distinction. 

This issue could also come up in at least three other states that have submitted ESSA plans so far, but haven't yet gotten feedback from the department, including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Vermont. (We break down all of the factors that states want to include in their accountability systems here, so you can compare and contrast.) Plus, more than 30 other states will submit their plans this fall, and some of them may also want to incorporate science into school ratings. 

Want more? This FAQ from the department explains all this in much more technical detail

And of course, don't miss our ESSA video:


Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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