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Inside ESSA Plans: Is Arizona's Approach Unfair to Transient Students?

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Anyone who has worked in high poverty schools knows that poor kids are more likely than their wealthy peers to switch schools several times during their academic careers. That's why civil rights advocates are worried about the way Arizona's plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act handles transient students.

The state's plan has already gotten approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It attaches different weights to students test scores, depending on how long a student has been at a particular school.

For instance, at a middle school, an eighth grader who has been enrolled for three years would "count" more towards the school's overall grade than a sixth grader, who had just gotten there. And an eighth grader whose been at the school for all three years of their middle school career would factor more heavily into the school's rating than a classmate who spent sixth and seventh grade someplace else.

That means the performance of low-income and minority students may matter less, said Callie Kozlak, the field campaign manager for the Education Policy at UNIDOS US, a Latino advocacy organization. 

"It is concerning that there is a weight based on time in school and that students could potentially count less if they are enrolled in school for a shorter time," Kozlak said. "This could potentially have a disparate impact on disadvantaged students who move during the school year due to extenuating circumstances."

But Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, said the system is intended to ensure that schools get the most credit—or blame—for the work they've done with students they've been educating for years, as opposed to the kids who just walked in the door.

"The rationale for using this approach is that schools are held accountable to the students who have been with them the longest, and therefore, should be performing better since they've been in a stable school," he said in an email. "The field is very excited about this way of calculating proficiency, since they believe it truly holds them accountable. The field recognizes it's not a perfect system, but they appreciate the model's intent."

'Mixed Feelings'

So are school superintendents in Arizona excited about the change? Not really, according to their association president.

"There have been mixed feelings on that," said Mark Joraanstad, the executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association. He said the Grand Canyon State has a wide array of schools. Some are kindergarten through third grade, others are traditional elementary schools. A middle school may serve grades six through eight or just seventh and eighth grade.

Some school leaders were initially worried about the change because of those variations, he said. The state produced some numbers showing the number of grades in a school didn't make a substantial difference in its overall score.

Still, he wouldn't mind if the state decided to back off that strategy whenever it revises its ESSA plan. 

"Our organization would support" changing it, he said. Joraanstad's not sure the technique makes a big difference but, he said, "on the face of it, it seems to single out a mobile group [not] to be counted as fully and we have a lot of mobile students."

And Kozlak noted that the peer reviewers who examined Arizona's plan for the U.S. Department noticed the potential problem, too. The department even cited it in their official feedback letter to the state, asking how the state planned to make sure all students were included in the accountability system. In response, Arizona provided some more information, but didn't appear to make substantial changes, Kozlak said. The plan was approved anyway.  

That makes her wonder how much the department's feedback on plans even matters in the approval process. (We wrote about that broader issue in ESSA plans here.)

One related issue: Kozlak is also concerned about a related part of the plan, which allows schools to exclude the test scores of kids who enrolled a few months into the year from their overall academic rating. "This seems like a potential way to exclude students from being counted and this is a concern for civil rights groups," Kozlak she said.  

Joraanstad said that's been a part of the state's accountability system for years—it isn't new to ESSA. And he's all for it.

He said it's unfair to ask schools to be held accountable for "a student they've had in the school for two months" just because those two months take place right before testing time. That's partly because some of the state's courses, such as math, build throughout the year. A teacher shouldn't have to catch up a student who is brand new to her class in just a few weeks before testing time starts, he said. 


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