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What's Missing From Some State ESSA Plans?

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Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states get to decide what goals to set for student achievement, how to gauge schools' academic progress and quality, and more. (Explainer on the law here.) 

But in some of the 12 plans that have already been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, elements are still to be determined. Some states didn't completely spell out their student achievement goals. Others didn't say exactly how much each individual factor would count toward schools' overall ratings. And others proposed school quality indicators they didn't fully explain. (Much of the up-in-the-air information concerned student achievement goals. More on those here.)

The blank spots in state plans could set up an interesting test for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has made local control a watchword for the department, but also said she is not going to rubber-stamp all plans. Will she approve plans despite the blanks? Reject the plans?

There are some middle-ground options too, including approving plans conditionally, or allowing states to add the missing information during the typical bureaucratic back-and-forth over plan details. The department also could decide to ask states to flesh out their plans before starting the peer review process.

UPDATE: Two states, Maine and Massachusetts, said the department had told them that their plans were incomplete. 

So what exactly are these blank spots? Here's a list of to-be-determined pieces we've seen so far:

  • Under ESSA, states are required to pick both long-term and interim goals for student achievement and graduation rates. Massachusetts, though, doesn't include goals for student achievement, although the state does set graduation rate goals. The Bay State explains that it has switched to a new test, rolled out during the 2016-17 school year. It wants to get a baseline from the first year of that test before finalizing its student achievement goals. (Other states have set long-term goals without having test results, as Andrew notes here.)
  • Massachusetts and Maine haven't given a final answer on how much weight they want to give to both academic and school quality indicators in their systems. Wonky explanation of why this matters: Under ESSA, states are supposed to give separate, "substantial weight" to student achievement, graduation rates, English-language proficiency and another academic indicator, as well as an indicator of school quality or student success. Academic indicators—like test scores and graduation rates—are supposed to weigh "much more" as a group than the indicator of school quality or student success. Maine's plan explains that it will finalize its weights in June, after it has two years of academic data from its test. 
  • Maine is still hammering out its interim progress goals. And the state hasn't set goals for English-language proficiency or student achievement, although it has set goals for graduation. The state wants to get two years of student achievement data on its new test before picking these goals, according to its ESSA plan. UPDATE: The department told Maine its plan was  incomplete. In response, the state will flesh-out its goals using data from previous assessments, and then update once new data is available. 
  • Connecticut hasn't set student achievement goals, although it has set growth goals for elementary and middle schools. The state considers its targets as setting "growth to proficiency." More here
  • Connecticut is still working on its English-language proficiency indicator, which it plans to attach to student growth, rather than consider separately. Peer reviewers may question the fact that the state won't be measuring English-language proficiency right from the start, and the fact that ELP won't be a standalone indicator. The growth indicator, however, counts for more than any other in the state's system, a Connecticut spokeswoman said. 
  • Illinois has proposed an early-childhood indicator as a way to measure elementary school quality and an additional indicator for elementary and middle schools, but the state is still figuring out exactly what these new factors would be and how they would work. The state plans to reach out to the education community to identify and develop these new indicators. and finalize them by December. These two factors would each account for about 5 percent of a school's overall rating. 

It's tough to say whether the department's peer reviewers—educators and experts who will be reading state plans—will be put off by the fact that these elements are still being fleshed out. And it will ultimately be up to DeVos to figure out how to handle states with to-be-determined elements in their plans.

Whatever DeVos and company decide to do with these early states could matter down the line. The vast majority of states won't turn their ESSA plans in until September, and they'll almost certainly be looking at what happens with these early players. So if the department doesn't have a problem with these blank spots, we might see more states submit something similar. 

Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.

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