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More Than a Quarter of Schools Could Be Flagged as in Need of Improvement Under ESSA, Experts Say

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Now that the Every Student Succeeds Act has been officially in place for a whole school year, states are beginning to release their lists of schools that need extra help. And there's a particular group of schools that experts are watching closely: Additional Targeted Schools.

That's a wonky term for a particular set of schools that need improvement, but it's one to watch: It could end up describing anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of schools, according to preliminary observations by the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit that works with states on testing and accountability. (Although that may be the typical range, many states will be under the 30 percent threshold, the Center said.)

This bears out in individual states, too. In California, at least a quarter of schools would qualify, according to a report compiled by the state board of education earlier this year. (Check out page 429 of this document for more.) And a plurality of those schools would qualify because of struggling performance among students in special education.

Similarly, Louisiana found by using data from 2015 and 2016 that about 42 percent of its schools would fall into the category. Most would be identified because of poor performance of students in special education. (Check out page 66 of the state's ESSA plan for more).

So what exactly are Additional Targeted Schools and what's required of them under ESSA? Under the law, states must flag Title I schools that are in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state for what's called "comprehensive support and improvement." In those schools, the district is required to come up with an evidence-based plan to fix the school's problem, monitored by the state.

Additional targeted support schools are different. These are schools that might look fine—even really good—overall, but where at least one subgroup of students, such as English- language learners, students in special education, racial minorities, or poor kids, is performing as poorly as the students in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools.

ESSA requires these schools to put a plan in place to address the issue. And, unlike other schools flagged by the law, the plan must consider types of resources students in the underperforming subgroup are getting. (For example:  Do the English-language learners have the newest and least experienced teachers in the school?)

The district is supposed to monitor the plan. If a school doesn't fix the problem after a certain number of years determined by the state, it is supposed to be put into the more intensive "comprehensive improvement" bucket. (More explanation here). 

Are states and districts really going to have to go through this process with as many as half of their schools? Probably not. Most states haven't released their lists of schools flagged under ESSA just yet, but experts say many states are trying to whittle down the number of schools identified for improvement.

"Most states found ways to massage the system and make it work for them and their intended goals," said Anne Hyslop, the assistant director for policy development and governmental relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a research and advocacy organization.

Flagging 70 percent of schools—or more—as being in need of improvement may take the significance out of the label, and states might not have the bandwidth to help all of those schools get better, said Chris Domaleski, the associate director at the Center for Assessment.

"If everybody is failing, nobody is failing," he said. "If number goes too high it loses any meaningfulness, but if states control it too far, we're concerned that maybe information isn't as straightforward as it perhaps should be. States are trying to find that sweet spot."

For instance, some states are requiring schools to be part of yet another improvement category for ESSA—targeted improvement—before joining the more significant "additional targeted" bucket, Domaleski said. Schools flagged for targeted improvement also need to come up with a plan to fix the problem, monitored by their district.

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


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