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Flood of State ESSA Plans Lands on Betsy DeVos' Desk

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Thirty states and Puerto Rico turned in their Every Student Succeeds Act plans in time for the U.S. Department of Education's deadline of midnight on Monday, said Liz Hill, a department spokeswoman. Four hurricane-ravaged states—Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Texas—got an extension for later this fall. 

The list of states in this latest and last round of submissions includes some of the most populous, including California and New York. (More on some specifics in those states' plans below).

This is the second of two big batches of ESSA plans. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia turned in  their plans last spring. And most of those—Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—have gotten approvals from the department. Colorado will turn its revised plan in October. And Massachusetts and Michigan are still waiting for the green light.

It's unclear how much influence the department is having—or wants to have—on state ESSA visions. So far, the feds have given a seal of approval to state plans even if they didn't necessarily include all of the changes the agency asked for in its official feedback.

And U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told Education Week that she's encouraging states "not to err on the side of caution, but to really push and go up to the line, test how far it takes to go over it."

Minnich said he expects the department will ultimately approve every state's plan that's submitted.

"I think states have put together a really good starting point," Minnich said. And he added, "I've really appreciated the way the department has dealt with round one. There's been honest dialogue and back-and-forth." 

But the two top Democrats in Congress working on education issues—Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.—think there hasn't been nearly enough oversight of state plans. They urged DeVos and company to do more to scrutinize this incoming batch.  

So what are some highlights from this new batch of plans? One of the biggest changes in ESSA is that states must look at more than just test scores in rating schools. Many of the states that submitted their plans last spring chose to consider chronic absenteeism or college-and-career readiness as an added focus. And those factors were popular with new batch, too, said Kirsten Taylor, a policy analyst with CCSSO.

States offered some interesting specifics when it comes to school improvement, Minnich said. For instance, Arkansas is allowing its schools to use early-childhood education as an improvement strategy. And West Virginia is pairing low-performing schools with high-flyers that have similar demographics, so that the schools can learn from one another.

States also had to come up with plans to address teacher quality. Minnich noted New York wants to continue to push to ensure high-poverty schools get access to strong teachers. And Missouri highlighted its programs to support beginning teachers.

Early-childhood education was a factor in more than half a dozen state plans, according to a CCSSO analysis. Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Arkansas all incorporated it into their plans in some fashion.

Some states are already getting pushback on their plans from local advocates.

Ryan Smith, the director of Education Trust-West, which looks out for historically disadvantaged students, said California's plan "does not offer assurances that it will truly hold schools and districts accountable for improving performance and closing achievement gaps."

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. also expressed concerns that California's system, which relies on a dashboard to rate schools on everything from academic achievement to student engagement to access to a broad course of study. He said it's not going to be an easy system for parents to understand.

Mike Kirst, California's state board president, doesn't see it that way.

"California's entire accountability and support system is based on improving the performance of student groups," he said in a statement.

He noted that districts that don't improve student outcomes in at least two areas—such as graduation rates, test scores, and suspension rates—are targeted for extra help, and could even be subject to more serious state intervention. And the state is offering an extra $10.1 billion annually to districts that serve high-needs students, including English-language learners, foster youth, and kids from low-income families. 

New York, which got high marks from outside reviewers for offering a lot of specificity on school improvement, is already seeking testing waivers under ESSA. For instance, the Empire State wants to offer below-grade-level assessments to a subset of students in special education, to help capture what they know.

"It's a major difficulty for them in their perception of how they're doing in school or how well they're doing in school and what they really know, based on their abilities," said Mary Ellen Elia, the state commissioner, in an interview. She also said the waiver would essentially enable New York to adapt its tests to students' ability levels the same way other states that are using computer adaptive assessments already can. 

Intrastate Squabbles

There's been plenty of political tension within states as they rushed to get their plans on DeVos' desk. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, refused to sign off on the plan written by the state chief, Tony Evers, who happens to be running against him for governor. Walker called Evers' ideas "bureaucratic" and said the state's plan should look more like Tennessee's.

And in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan also refused to sign off on the state's plan. He said the state board didn't have free rein to craft a plan that would identify and fix the state's lowest-performing schools. That's thanks to a new state law backed by the teachers' union that says test scores can't count for more than 65 percent of a school's overall rating.

The Maryland law also bars the state department of education from requiring low-performing schools to convert to charters, giving students vouchers to attend private schools, or creating a state-run turnaround district. 


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