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Trump Ed. Dept. Critiques ESSA Plans From Arizona, North Dakota, and Vermont

Arizona, North Dakota, and Vermont will have to make changes to their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act when it comes to accountability, low-performing schools, and more, according to feedback letters released Thursday.  

We read the letters so you don't have to:

Arizona—like a host of other states—will need to change the way that science factors into its accountability system. Science can be included in the systems but it can't be part of the "academic achievement" portion of state plans. (More here.) The state also must revamp how schools' test participation will factor into their overall ratings. (Quick explanation: ESSA requires that states do something to address schools where fewer than 95 percent of students take standardized tests. But states get to decide what that something is.)

North Dakota needs to do a better job of explaining how student progress on standardized tests—as opposed to straight-up achievement—will factor into school ratings. And the state needs to reconsider how much weight its giving to academic indicators—like test scores and graduation rates—as opposed to school quality factors, like school climate. Right now, by the department's calculation, North Dakota has given more weight to non-academic factors than academic ones. That's not cool under ESSA, which calls for states to weight academics, as a whole, more heavily than non-academic factors. North Dakota also got dinged for including a "racial minority" subgroup in its system. States are supposed to break out particular races individually. And the state needs to do a much better job of explaining how it will identify schools where particular groups of students, such as English-language learners, aren't performing well. 

Vermont needs to clarify how it will pinpoint schools where particular subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education, are struggling. And like Arizona, the Green Mountain State may need to rethink how it addresses schools with low test-participation rates. Vermont had originally hoped to let districts decide if a school had made enough academic progress to no longer be considered low-performing. The department says that won't fly—the state needs to come up with its own list of criteria that applies to all schools. Vermont also got dinged for the way it included so-called scale scores, instead of straight-up proficiency rates, in its accountability system. (The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has a great explanation of this wonky, but important, issue.)

If you've read other ESSA feedback letters, you might notice that Arizona, North Dakota, and Vermont's are a bit shorter than states that got their responses sooner. That could be thanks to recent changes the department has made to its ESSA feedback system. Initially, the department sent letters to states with a detailed list of the problems peer reviewers found.

But then the agency got pushback for overstepping its bounds. So it has switched up the process, first calling a state and going over trouble spots on the phone. If a state is able to explain a particular problem to the department's satisfaction, the agency might not mention it in their letter. The change-up has raised concerns about transparency and fairness, including from key Democratic lawmakers.

For those keeping score at home: Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans to implement ESSA. The rest of the states will turn in their plans in September. So far, four—Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, and New Mexico—have been approved. Nearly every state that's turned in an ESSA plan has gotten a response from the feds.  


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