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Are States Taking the Trump Ed. Dept.'s ESSA Critiques to Heart? Not Always.

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' team have told states that they need to make bunch of changes in their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. But in some cases, states have said thanks-but-no-thanks to the department's advice, turning in revised plans that may or may not be kosher under the new law.

That could put DeVos and company in a tough political—and legal—spot. Do they approve plans that they think don't actually pass muster? Or do they hold the line, reject the plans, and risk the wrath of states, policy wonks, and conservative lawmakers who already think they've gone too far with the federal finger-wagging?

Case in point: The U.S. Department of Education, which has given official feedback to nine of the 17 state plans that have been turned in, dinged Tennessee for using super-subgroups, which combine different historically overlooked groups of students (think English-language learners and students in special education) for accountability purposes.

But the Volunteer State, which revised its plan based on the department's feedback, decided to stick with its original vision. The state provided some data to explain its reasoning behind having a Black, Hispanic, and Native American subgroup, showing that more schools will actually be identified as needing help using the super-subgroup than would be otherwise.

So will the department buy that argument? Hard to say. Some folks, including the congressional staff who wrote ESSA, say super-subgroups are a no-no under the law. And civil rights groups, which argue super-subgroups mask achievement gaps, agree. But others say ESSA isn't crystal clear on this point and that there may be room for interpretation.

Complicating matters: New Mexico and other states use a form of super-subgroups, but didn't get called out in feedback like Tennessee did.

Another issue to keep your eye on: Connecticut wants to use so-called "scale scores"—which help capture student progress—as opposed to straight up proficiency rates, which is what many folks, including the department, say ESSA requires. Connecticut is not standing down on this issue, telling the department that, "Webster's dictionary defines proficiency not only as a state of being proficient, but also as an advancement in knowledge or skill." Scale scores, Connecticut contends, are "the most accurate measure of a student's proficiency." (Great explainer for those who want to wonk out on scale scores versus proficiency rates from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here.)

It's not clear if skirting the department's asks will lead to rejections for Tennessee, Connecticut, or any other state. The department released a "frequently asked questions" document making it clear that states don't have to heed its feedback. But DeVos ultimately has say over whether a state plan flies or not.

To be sure, states are taking some of the department's suggestions to heart. Louisiana and Tennessee tweaked their plans for incorporating science into their accountability systems, for example. And Connecticut made changes to how it identifies schools with low-performing groups of students, at the department's behest. 

Want more? We examined revised plans for Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, and Tennessee, so you don't have to. Did we miss any big changes? Email us at [email protected] and [email protected].

Connecticut

The department cited Connecticut for not having a separate indicator for English-language proficiency. The state provided a longer explanation of its approach.

The department expressed concern that Connecticut didn't have a clear definition of what it means for a school's subgroups to be consistently underperforming. So the state revamped that part of its application.

The state provided more information about what kind of progress schools need to make to stop getting flagged for having low subgroup performance.

Delaware

The First State was hit for not having sufficiently ambitious student achievement goals. Delaware didn't change its goals, but it came up with a rationale to explain why what it picked originally was, indeed, ambitious.

Delaware was told it couldn't use Advanced Placement scores to prove students are college ready because the tests aren't available in every school. Delaware's department says that's not the case. Andrew looked at all of this in way more detail here.

Louisiana

Louisiana had originally wanted to incorporate science tests into the "academic achievement" part of its accountability plan, which the department says is a no-go. (More on what ESSA says about science here.)

As a measurement of school quality and student success, the state had wanted to use a brand new "interest and opportunity" indicator that would look at whether students are getting access to things like arts and physical education classes. The department, though, worried that the indicator wouldn't be ready for prime-time by the 2017-18 school year when ESSA is supposed to be fully in place.

The state decided to keep working on its "interest and opportunity" measure, but will use social studies and science test scores initially to gauge student success and school quality.

It also moved student growth for high schools to another part of its accountability system.

The state clarified how English-language proficiency factors into school ratings. (The state is planning to use a complicated weighting system, which you can check out beginning on page 54 of its application).

Tennessee

Like Louisiana, Tennessee was criticized for wanting to include science in the "academic achievement" part of its accountability system. So the state moved science to a different part of its accountability system.

Tennessee was cited for not offering tests in a language other than English. The state continues to maintain that doing so would violate state law. But it said it will offer other resources in Spanish, the most common language spoken by its students, besides English.

Tennessee tweaked its definition for "consistently low-performing subgroups." It said that basically, any school that gets a D on the accountability system meets that bar. 


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