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Many State ESSA Plans Are 'Uncreative, Unambitious,' Analysis Finds

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The two-year-old Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to free states up to go off in bold, new directions on K-12 policy. So did state plans—all of which have been turned into the U.S. Department of Education—live up to that promise?

Not so much, according Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm that reviewed the plans as part of a partnership with the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

"With few exceptions, we found state ESSA plans to be mostly uncreative, unambitious, unclear, or unfinished," wrote Bellwether in an executive summary of the review. That was true even though the set of states that submitted their plans in September had more time to refine their blueprints than the 17 states, including the District of Columbia, that turned in their plans in the spring. 

It's unclear, though, if critiques like Bellwether's resonate with the Education Department—or states. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has already approved sixteen of the seveteen ESSA plan that were submitted in the spring, including some that got low marks from Bellwether and the Collaborative's review of the first batch of plans.

Bellwether said some of the weakest areas of state plans included goals, which Bellwether didn't think were grounded in evidence; confusing school ratings systems; and states' failure to incorporate student subgroup performance into school ratings. (Minnesota was an exception on subgroups.) States also weren't specific about how they would address the needs of English-language learners and students in special education, according to Bellwether.

The plans were examined by dozens of reviewers who rated each state on a variety of categories, including goals, standards and assessments, indicators, academic progress, incorporating all students into the accountability system, identifying schools as in need of help, supporting schools, exiting improvement status, and continuous improvement. Each category was graded on a five point scale. Some states, including Alabama and Virginia, did not get a single score above a 2 in any area. Others fared better, including Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington, each of which got a 3 or better in every category.

The reviewers also found that 26 states did not specify consequences for schools where fewer than 95 percent of students take standardized tests. And 24 states did not expect a certain amount of progress for schools to no longer be considered low-performing. An Education Week analysis, released back in September, also took a lot at how states handled test participation, goals, indicators, school ratings, and more

Bare Minimum 

Some reviewers—who included civil rights advocates, policy wonks, and educators—think states didn't go out of their way to provide details beyond what the feds specifically asked for. 

"Overall, states put the mininum amount in plans that they had to," said Scott Sargrad, the managing director of K-12 policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a former Obama administration official, who reviewed the plans. 

Many states, he said, weren't specific about how they would help fix low-performing schools. (To be sure, the Education Department didn't ask for a lot of information on that point. And ESSA gives districts—not states—much of the responsibility for coming up with a plan to overhaul struggling schools.)

Still, Sargrad said, a few states went above and beyond what was asked for on school improvement strategies, including North Carolina and Indiana. Bellwether also gave high marks to Rhode Island and New York on school improvement. 

Some of the most populous states turned in plans that had clear weaknesses in the reviewers' view.  Dale Chu, an independent consultant who reviewed California's plan, saw it as confusing and overly complex. He called it a "missed opportunity." 

Shanna Peoples, a former Texas teacher who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2015, gave Texas high marks for doing a good job of spelling out how student subgroups—such as English-language learners and students in special education—would factor into a school's overall rating.

She thinks Texas' goal of 95 percent proficiency is a good one. But she's not sure that Texas has thought as much as it could about the interim steps along the way. For instance, the state set its graduation rate goal for white students at 90 percent in the 2021-22 school year, Peoples said. But Texas already graduated 91 percent of white students this year. She also noticed that a number of other states were specific about what they would do to advance teacher leadership—an area where she wishes the Lone Star State had provided more details.


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