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See Changes California and Florida Have Made to Their ESSA Plans to Win Betsy DeVos' Approval

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may have approved Every Student Succeeds Act plans for 37 states, but two of the biggest—Florida and California—are still waiting for the feds' blessing.

DeVos has singled out school-choice-friendly Florida as a model for the rest of the country. But the department had a number of concerns about the state's initial ESSA plan. Florida resubmitted a revised version to the feds on Friday.

The Sunshine State's original plan tried to stick as close as possible to the A through F grading system that Florida had in place under its No Child Left Behind Act waiver.

That meant Florida didn't want to rate schools on how well they help English-language learners achieve proficiency—an ESSA must. And the state wanted to continue to use a combined "super subgroup" that considers the lowest-performing 25 percent of students in a school (no matter what their race, income, or disability status) rather then look at results for English learners, students in special education, and racial minorities separately. That flew in the face of ESSA's requirement to take subgroup performance into account in identifying struggling schools.

To address these issues, the state has come up with a federal index that will be separate from its A-F school grading system. That index will take English-language proficiency into account, and will be used—in addition to the school grading system—to flag struggling schools. And Florida has also added language to its plan saying it will consider individual subgroup performance, not just overall school grades, in identifying schools for "targeted support" under the law.

That might meet the letter of ESSA. But it's not easy to wrap your head around, said Anne Hyslop, a former Obama administration official who reviewed Florida's plan for Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

"They chose the more complicated route because they didn't want to mess with the A to F system," she said.

What's more, ESSA requires states to identify languages other than English that are present to "significant extent" in the student population and to make every effort to create native language exams for new arrivals. Florida, though, has a state law that makes English the state's official language. The state initially declined to name any other popular language, despite its sizable Spanish-speaking population

Florida's revised plan does define which languages are "present to a significant extent" under ESSA. Only one meets the proposed definition: Spanish. That means the Sunshine State may end up meeting the letter of the law. But it is unclear if Florida will actually end up creating tests in Spanish, Hyslop said. The state could say that it made "every effort" to offer such tests, but was hamstrung by its state law.

"It's a symbolic thing. Substantively, will Florida do anything different with regard to native-language assessments? Probably not," she said.

The Sunshine State is also asking for a waiver. It wants to expand a provision of ESSA that allows states to permit 8th grade students taking Algebra 1 to take high school tests, rather than an exam at their own grade level. Florida wants to extend that flexibility to all kids who take Algebra 1 and other advanced math courses, as well as advanced science, even if they are in, say, the 6th grade. 

Florida's revised plan also touted its progress on the most recent version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card. Overall, the report, which came out earlier this month, generally showed little progress in reading and math, and persistent achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their peers. Florida was the only state to show significant improvement in math at both grade levels and in 8th grade reading. (No state improved in 4th grade reading.)

Meanwhile, California earlier this month submitted a revised ESSA plan that meets the federal demand to flag schools in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state. That requirement--an ESSA must--doesn't jibe well with California's own school rating system, which relies on a color-based dashboard that uses specific criteria to identify the lowest-performing schools and districts.

What's more, California's own accountability system focuses on school districts, whereas ESSA requires states to identify individual schools as low-performing. California also intervenes in districts that are performing below a certain level. The state doesn't seek to identify a particular percentage of schools as struggling. And some members of the California state members were uncomfortable with the federal approach.

Ultimately though, to meet the federal requirement, California opted to flag as low-performing those schools that were doing either very poorly or poorly on half or more of the indicators measured by the dashboard, according to David Sapp, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the California State Board of Education. That may end up capturing 6 or 8 percent of schools, he said, as opposed to just 5 percent. But it is closer in line with the state's own system, Sapp said.

California also tweaked its plan to measure a school or district's improvement or decline over time in a way that was more consistent with ESSA. And the state made changes to the way 11th grade tests figure into school ratings, also at the feds' behest. And the state also revamped its definition of English-language proficiency to better match the federal requirements. But California is seeking a waiver to go back to its own definition, which takes into account whether English-language learners have been "reclassified" as proficient in English.

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here's some useful information:


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