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Trump Education Official to States: Don't Forget About Reading, Math Under ESSA



A top staffer overseeing implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act at the U.S. Department of Education has a message for states and districts as they embrace the law's new school quality measures: Don't forget about reading and math.

"Let's agree from the start that reading and math are, and must remain, fundamental," said Jason Botel Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution and the George W. Bush Institute. He noted the law "strikes the right balance" by requiring states to place "much greater weight" on academic indicators—including reading and math test scores—than on things like chronic absenteeism or school climate.

"That's important because according to recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress, our reading and math scores continue to stagnate, unfortunately," said Botel, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "And it's especially troubling that the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students is widening, according to those results. So we can't take our eyes off the ball on reading and math."

But, he added, considering reading and math alone isn't enough to get a full picture of how a school is doing.

"We need strong focus on reading and math and additional indicators," Botel said. "I learned the hard way as a school leader that when you only look at reading and math you lose sight of other important measures of how well students are being prepared for success." (Botel is a former executive director of KIPP Baltimore and also worked for Teach For America.)

In responses to state ESSA plans, Botel and his team have asked states to revise their plans if the indicators they choose couldn't be compared statewide and across different groups of students—an issue he alluded to in his speech.

"States have broad discretion in developing these indicators which must be comparable, statewide, valid, reliable, and able to [be] reliable for each subgroup," Botel said. "I've had to repeat those words many, many times. And as states innovate, which is great, we've worked really hard to make sure each of these new indicators meets all of those comparable, statewide, valid, and reliable and able to be disaggregated for each subgroup."

States could choose any indicator of school quality or student success they wanted to rate schools under ESSA. For instance, Connecticut is looking at a range of things, including access to arts education. A handful of states, including Delaware, are looking at science and social studies.

But by far, the two most popular measures are chronic absenteeism or attendance and college-and-career readiness. At least 33 states are looking at chronic absenteeism, and at least 35 are looking at college-and-career readiness, which states are defining in all sorts of ways, from AP course-taking, to dual enrollment, to career certification, to military readiness.

Two reports were released at the event that delved deeper into the school quality and student success indicators. One, by Brookings' Hamilton Project, takes a look at the issue of chronic absenteeism and how it can be used in accountability systems. The other, by the George W. Bush Institute, considers college and career readiness.

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

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