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Inside ESSA Plans: How Are States Looking Beyond Test Scores?

ESSA_StateMap-blog.jpg By Alyson Klein, Andrew Ujifusa, and Stephen Sawchuk

School officials: Get ready to figure out whether your students have a problem with chronic absenteeism. And while you're at it, see if you're getting them ready for college and the workplace. 

Attendance—particularily chronic absenteeism—and college-and-career readiness are by far the most popular new areas of focus for accountability among the 40-plus states that have filed their plans to implement the Every Student Success Act, an Education Week review shows.

At least 33 states are looking at chronic absenteeism or attendance in some form to hold schools accountable under the new law. And some states chose factors that are related to attendance. California, for instance, is looking at suspensions and discipline rates.  

At least 33 states are incorporating some kind of postsecondary-readiness measure, whether that's ACT scores, SAT scores, dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, career and technical education pathways, a mix of those factors, or something else. For instance New York is looking at whether students enroll and pass advanced courses, or earn college credit through dual enrollment. And Georgia is considering whether students earn credit through Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, or a CTE certification. 

Quick tutorial: ESSA, which goes into effect this school year, requires states to go beyond test scores and graduation rates and consider some sort of measure of "school quality or student success" in gauging school performance. States can pick almost any factor they want: school climate, student engagement, teacher engagement, access to and success in advanced coursework. Basically, states have all kinds of room to run 

However, states must make sure that whatever factor they pick show meaningful differences—every school can't look the same. And they have to choose something that can be broken out for particular groups of students, including English-language learners, low-income students, students in special education, and racial minorities.

So are chronic absenteeism and college-and-career readiness the right things for states to be focusing on? Phillip Lovell, the vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education says yes.  

"I see this as a good-news story," he said. He noted that when ESSA passed, some advocates were excited about the prospect of looking beyond test scores to gauge school performance. Others, not so much. "Some saw it as a way to [better] appreciate what schools do, some saw it as a way to water down accountability," Lovell said.  

As it turns out though, states overall took a good approach, in Lovell's view. "We found that the indicators that are being selected are, generally speaking, of high quality and they really aren't watering down accountability," he said. "We're seeing generally the best of worlds." 

And, given all the focus on college-and-career readiness, he's hoping that, at some point, states might want to consider whether students need to take remedial coursework once they get to college. That, he said, is the ultimate test of whether students are prepared. 

What's generally not in the plans: So far, none of the states whose plans were reviewed by Education Week appear to use social and emotional factors, like grit and growth mindset. That's something a cadre of districts in California were doing, under a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous version of the law. But even fans of those factors worried that they were tough to measure and use for accountability.   

Chronic absenteeism and college-and-career readiness, on the other hand, are a lot easier to calcuate, even though states are defining and measuring them in all sorts of different ways. 

"States are choosing measures that they have the ability to measure in the near term rather than adding things in without a clear plan to correct and report on those measures," said Terra Wallin, who worked on ESSA as a career staffer at the U.S. Department of Education and is now a consultant with Education First.  

And she noted that some states, including New York, say they will be continuing to talk to their education communities and may incorporate additional factors into their systems down the line. 

Chronic absenteeism and college-and career readiness may be the most popular school quality and student success factors, but they aren't the only ones. For instance, states including Kentucky, Nebraska, Utah, Rhode Island, as well as Delaware and Louisiana, whose plans have already been approved, added science proficiency into the mix. And Illinois wants to create a new fine arts indicator.  

We'll be unpacking the latest round of ESSA plans over the next weeks and months, so stay tuned for more analysis. Tips? Email us at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected]

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