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State Chiefs: We Won't Walk Away From Disadvantaged Groups Under ESSA

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Washington

When the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015, there was widespread worry that states would walk away from making sure that particular groups of students—English-language learners, students in special education, and racial minorities—mattered in their school accountability systems.

Now that pretty much every state has filed its plan to implement the law have those fears become the reality? 

States are working to make sure that's not the case, said several state chiefs who spoke on a panel here moderated by Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. (Some advocates are skeptical—more on that below.)

Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent in North Dakota, believes that advocates in her state, and other district leaders, will make sure that everyone is pushing to make sure the lowest-performing schools and students get better.

"Peers hold peers responsible," she said. "They aren't going to let us dismiss any subgroup. ... We embrace this, we want this, all means all."

Pedro Rivera, the secretary of education in Pennsylvania, noted that his system will give credit both for student achievement and growth, as well as factors that tend to hit students in poverty more heavily than others, such as chronic absenteeism. 

Dianna Wentzell, the commissioner of education in Connecticut, echoed that sentiment. "I can understand the skepticism," she said. One of the things she said she was most worried about when ESSA passed was that "we would lose the backstop that No Child Left Behind gave us. What's happened instead is that states have had to step up and say, 'Yeah, we want that for our kids,' and not only that we want more."

Wentzell was specifically asked about her state's plan to use so-called super-subgroups, which allow the state to combine English-language learners, students in special education, and disadvantaged kids for accountability purposes. Civil rights groups say super-subgroups mask achievement gaps and aren't supposed to be allowed under the law.

But in Wentzell's view, they've helped Connecticut to pinpoint districts where students are performing well, but where particular groups of kids aren't making progress. It turned out, for instance, that a well-regarded district in "one of our most-affluent shoreline communities" was "the worst place for some of our students to learn high school math," she said.

Civil rights groups and other experts may end up having a somewhat different view of whether states are taking the achievement of subgroups seriously in ESSA, once the plans are all analyzed and put in action.

For instance the Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority students, had concerns about how much subgroups mattered in the first batch of 17 plans, which were filed this spring. So far, 15 of those plans have been approved by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Daria Hall, Ed Trust's vice president for communications and government affairs, said in an email that three of the most important things to look for in weighing whether a state plan promotes equity are the quality of the indicators used to rate schools, whether they're rated based on the performance of each group of students, and whether there are rigorous criteria for when schools and districts have to act to better serve individual groups of students.

"Among state plans that have been approved so far, many do quite well on the first, but fall far short on the latter two," wrote Hall.

More tidbits from the panel:

On testing:

ESSA not only gives states a chance to focus on factors beyond tests in rating schools, it also encourages states to cut back on the amount of time kids have to spend taking tests. 

Baesler said she's slashing her state's testing time, which used to be about six-and-a-half or seven hours to about five-and-a-half or six hours. And Wentzell said Connecticut is using the SAT in high school, so juniors don't have to prepare for both a college entrance exam and a state test. 

John White, Louisiana's state superintendent, said his state has created a bank of free "formative" assessments districts can use to help shape instruction. These, he said, can take the place of low-quality tests offered by vendors. That way districts can say "we have a trustworthy" series of tests and "we can get rid of everything else. Save yourself some money, save yourself some time." 

On the U.S. Department of Education's ESSA-plan reviews: The chiefs gave the Education Department high marks for being both thorough and fair. 

"It was a good process," said Baesler. "It was probably a little more challenging than anything we were expecting. There was good push and pull back and forth, there was dialogue. ... In the end I believe we had a better product because of that dialogue."

Wentzell said she agreed and found the agency's questions "challenging in an appropriate way. They really pushed us to be more clear and sometimes to rethink" aspects of the plan. 

For context, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said she's in favor of giving states as much flexibility as possible. And some Democrats in Congress say the administration didn't push oversight far enough.


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